The antiwar movement that wasn’t enough

These are the wars we couldn't end.


When I urge my writing students to juice up their stories, I tell them about “disruptive technologies,” inventions and concepts that end up irrevocably changing industries. Think: iPhones, personal computers, or to reach deep into history, steamships. It’s the tech version of what we used to call a paradigm shift. (President Biden likes to refer to it as an inflection point.)

Certain events function that way, too. After they occur, it’s impossible to go back to how things were: World War II for one generation, the Vietnam War for another, and 9/11 for a third. Tell me it isn’t hard now to remember what it was like to catch a flight without schlepping down roped-off chutes like cattle to the slaughter, even if for most of the history of air travel, no one worried about underwear bombers or explosive baby formula. Of course, once upon a time, we weren’t incessantly at war either.

However, for my students, the clumsily named Gen Z, the transformative event in their lives hasn’t been a war at all — no matter that their country has been enmeshed in one or more of them for all of their conscious lives. It’s probably George Floyd’s murder or the COVID pandemic or the double whammy of both, mixed in with a deadly brew of Trumpism. That alone strikes me as a paradigm shift.

It’s not that they are uncaring. Those I know are ardent about fixing myriad wrongs in the world and prepared to work at it, too. And like many Americans, for a few weeks as August 2021 ended, they were alarmed by the heartbreaking consequences of their country’s failed mission in Afghanistan and its betrayal of the people there. How could you not be heartbroken about people desperate to save their lives and livelihoods? And the girls… ah, the girls, the 37% of teenage girls who learned to read in those years, went to school with boys, saw their lives change, and probably will be denied all of that in the years to come.

In my more cynical moments, though, I note that it was the girls and women who were regularly trotted out by our government officials and generals insisting that U.S. troops must remain in Afghanistan until — until what? Until, as it turned out, disaster struck. After all, what good American heart doesn’t warm to educating the young and freeing girls from forced marriages (as opposed, of course, to killing civilians and causing chaos)?

Militarism is among the all-American problems the young activists I meet do sometimes bring up. It’s just not very high on their list of issues to be faced. The reasons boil down to this: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, interminable as they seemed, had little or no direct effect on most of my students or the lives they imagined having and that was reflected in their relative lack of attention to them, which tells us all too much about this country in the twenty-first century.

Spare change

So here we are, 20 years after U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan and months since they hotfooted it out. That two-decade-long boots-on-the-ground (and planes in the air) episode has now officially been declared over and done with, if not exactly paid for. But was that an inflection point, as this country turned its military attention to China and Russia? Not so fast. I’m impatient with the conventional wisdom about our twenty-first-century wars and the reaction to them at home. Still, I do think it’s important to try to figure out what has (or hasn’t) been learned from them and what may have changed because of them.

In the changed column, alas, the answer seems to be: not enough. Once again, in the pandemic moment, our military is filling roles that would be left to civil society if it were adequately funded — helping in hospitals and nursing homes, administering Covid-19 vaccinations and tests, teaching school and driving school buses — because, as Willie Sutton answered when asked why he robbed banks, that’s where the money is.

Apparently, it’s so much money that even the Defense Department doesn’t quite know how to spend it. Between 2008 and 2019, the Pentagon returned almost $128 billion in unspent funds from its staggeringly vast and still expanding budget. Admittedly, that’s a smaller percentage of that budget than other departments turned back, but it started with so much more and, as a result, that Pentagon spare change accounted for nearly half of all “cancelled” government funds during that time.

Yet too little of those vast sums spent go to active-duty troops. A recent survey found that 29% of the families of junior-level, active-duty soldiers experienced food insecurity (that is, hunger) in the past year, a strong indicator of the economic precariousness of everyday military life, even here at home.

It didn’t help that the U.S. military’s wars only sporadically drew extended public attention. Of course, before 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, that country’s name was shorthand for a place too obscure for most Americans even to find on a world map. And maybe that was still true in 2020, when, nearly two decades after the U.S invaded that nation, the American presence there got all of five minutes of coverage on the national evening newscasts of CBS, NBC, and ABC.

Years earlier, when the focus was more on Iraq than Afghanistan, I attended a meeting of the Smedley Butler Brigade of Veterans For Peace. I was writing a story for the Boston Globe, which made me an easy target for the veterans’ anger. As a result, they badgered me to make our city’s newspaper of record print a daily report of deaths in the war. I explained that, as a freelancer, I had even less influence than they did and, unsurprisingly, such an accounting never came to pass.

Years later, as the U.S. endeavor in Afghanistan wound down and the Globe and other mainstream outlets did actually publish calculations of the costs, I found myself wondering if all those credible, influential media sources would ever publish a reckoning of how many times in the past 20 years, when it might have made a difference, they had run cost analyses of the blinding arrogance that defined U.S. foreign and military policy in those decades. The impact of such accounts might have been vanishingly small anyway.

It’s true, by the way, that Brown University’s Costs of War Project did a formidable job of tackling that issue in those endless war years, but their accounts were, of course, anything but mainstream. Even today, in that mainstream, accurate counts are still hard to come by. The New York Times, which recently published a groundbreaking report on civilian deaths in the Middle East caused by U.S. airstrikes, was stymied by the Pentagon for years when trying to get the necessary documents for just such an accounting, while provincial authorities in Afghanistan often denied that civilian casualties had even occurred.

Presence and power

In 2004, when Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) was just getting started, I was introduced to a small group of disillusioned but determined young vets, wonderfully full of themselves and intent on doing things their way. While they appreciated the earlier soldier-led antiwar efforts of the Vietnam War era, they wanted to do it all in a new fashion. “We’re sort of reinventing the wheel,” Eli Wright, a young medic, who had served in Iraq, told me, “But we’re making it a much nicer wheel, I think.” I was smitten.

At first, those newly minted anti-warriors thought the very novelty of their existence in war-on-terror America would be enough. So, they told and retold their stories to anyone who would listen: stories of misguided raids and policing actions for which they were ill-equipped and ill-trained; of soul-destroying cruelty they found themselves implicated in; and of their dawning awareness, even while they were in Iraq, that they could no longer be a party to any of it. Believe me, those veterans told powerful and moving stories, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

In a piece about the power and pitfalls of storytelling,Jonathan Gottschall notes that, in the tales we tell, we tend to divide people into a tidy triad of heroes, victims, and villains. My longtime trope was that we — by which I mean we Americans — allowed those fighting our endless wars to be only heroes or victims — the former to valorize, the latter to pity — but nothing else. (Admittedly, sometimes civilian peace workers did see them as villains, but despite an inevitable jockeying for position, civilian and military antiwar groups generally recognized each other as comrades-against-arms.) IVAW insisted on adding activist to that dichotomy, as they attempted to change minds and history.

When you’re trying to do that, or at least influence policy, your odds of success are greater if you have a clear, specific goal you can advocate and agitate for and build coalitions around. Then, when you achieve it, you can, of course, claim victory. IVAW’s overriding aim was to bring the troops home immediately. That goal was finally (more or less) achieved, though at great cost and so much later than they had been demanding, making it anything but a resounding victory; nor did it, in the end, have much to do with those young veterans.

Their significance may lie elsewhere. Last August, in the midst of the chaotic U.S. pull-out from Afghanistan, I tuned in to a podcast about political and social activism just as Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization, Color of Change, was making a distinction between presence (“retweets, shout-outs from the stage”) and power (“the ability to change the rules”).

It would be hard to come up with a better illustration of that difference than Camp Casey, the August 2005 encampment of antiwar military families, veterans, and their sympathizers. It was sprawled across a ditch in Crawford, Texas, a few miles down the road from the ranch of a vacationing President George W. Bush. Their protest made significant news for those five weeks, as media around the world featured heart-rending stories of mothers in mourning and veterans in tears, photos of an iconic white tent, and interviews with Cindy Sheehan whose son, Casey, had been killed in Iraq the year before. The media anointed her the Grieving-Mother-in-Chief and news reports sometimes even got the protesters’ end-the-war, bring-the-troops-home message right.

Whizzing past in a motorcade on his way to a fundraiser, President Bush ignored them, and the war in Iraq continued for another five years with the deaths of about 2,700 more sons and daughters of grieving American mothers. But the next month, when somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 Camp Casey participants, veterans, and their supporters gathered for an antiwar march through downtown Washington, D.C., the government was forced to acknowledge, perhaps for the first time, the existence of opposition to the war in Iraq. For context, the National Park Service estimated then that, of the approximately 3,000 permits it issued for demonstrations on the National Mall yearly, only about a dozen attracted more than 5,000 people.

Presence matters and in the few years following Camp Casey, when the antiwar veterans were at their most effective, they learned how to make themselves harder to ignore. They’ve since renamed their group About Face and re conceived its purpose and goals, but the perennial challenge to political activists is how to turn presence into power.

Why didn’t the anti-war movement catch on?

In February 2003, as many as 10 million people took to the streets in 60 countries to protest the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. But once that invasion happened, it was primarily the military-related groups, sometimes joined by other peace organizations, that kept the opposition alive. Why, though, couldn’t they turn presence into power? Why didn’t more Americans take up the campaign to end two such pointless wars? Why didn’t we learn?

I make no claim to answering those questions in a definitive way. Nonetheless, here’s my stab at it.

Let’s start with the obvious: the repercussions of an all-volunteer military. Only a small proportion of Americans, self-selected and concentrated in certain parts of the country, have been directly involved in and affected by our twenty-first-century wars. Deployed over and over, they didn’t circulate in civil society in the way the previous draft military had and, as warfare became increasingly mechanized and automated (or drone-ified), there have been ever fewer American casualties to remind everyone else in this country that we were indeed at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the troops, that distancing from battle also undoubtedly lessened an innate human resistance to killing and also objections to those wars within the military itself.

Next, stylish as it might be in this country to honor veterans of our wars (thank you for your service!), as Kelly Dougherty, IVAW’s first executive director, complained, “We come home and everyone shakes our hands and calls us heroes, but no one wants to listen to us.” Stories of bravery, horrific wounds, and even post-traumatic stress syndrome were acceptable. Analysis, insight, or testimony about what was actually going on in the war zones? Not so much.

Folk singer, labor organizer, and vet, “Utah” Phillips observed that having a long memory is the most radical idea in America. With items in the news cycle lasting for ever-shorter periods of time before being replaced, administrations becoming ever harder to embarrass, and a voting public getting accustomed to being lied to, even a short memory became a challenge.

The hollowing out of local news in these years only exacerbated the problem. Less local reporting meant fewer stories about people we might actually know or examples of how world events affect our daily lives. Pro-war PR, better funded and connected than any antiwar group could hope to be, filled the gap. Think soldiers striding onto ballfields at sports events to the teary surprise of families and self-congratulatory cheers from the stands. Between 2012 and 2015, the Pentagon paid pro sports teams some $6.8 million to regularly and repeatedly honor the military. Meanwhile, the mainstream media has made it ever harder for peace groups to gain traction by applying a double standard to protest or outsider politics, a reality sociologist Sarah Sobieraj has explored strikingly in her book Soundbitten.

The nature of political protest changed, too. As information was disseminated and shared more and more through social media — activism by way of hashtag, tweet, and Instagram — organizing turned ever more virtual and ever less communal. Finally, despite protestations about the United States being a peace-loving country, the military in these years has proven a rare bipartisan darling, while, historically speaking, violence has been bred into America’s bones.  

Maybe, however, the lack of active opposition to the endless wars wasn’t a new normal, but something like the old normal. Sadly enough, conflicts don’t simply end because people march against them. Even the far larger Vietnam antiwar movement was only one pressure point in winding down that conflict. War policy is directed by what happens on the ground and, to a lesser degree, at the ballot box. What an antiwar movement can do is help direct the public response, which may, fingers crossed, save the country from going to war someplace else and save another generation of soldiers from having to repeat the mistakes of the past 20 years.

Copyright 2022 Nan Levinson.


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