War and Peaceniks
The Iraq war is as controversial as the Vietnam conflict, but this time antiwar demonstrators are a lonely bunch.
About 100 people tried to make peace on a warm September afternoon, with no more material than Tibetan prayer flags fluttering to the tattoo from a North African dumbek. Rhode Island’s International Day of Peace commemoration was mostly a quiet affair. Tucked into the shade cast by the Davey Lopes Recreation Center in Providence, organizers proffered free hugs and free water in recycled bottles amid mingling and face-painting. The temperature of the event rose only briefly when rapper Mr. Deeply Positive, a.k.a. James McBride, stirred the assembly to hold two fingers aloft and chant: “We Want P-E-A-C-E! We Want P-E-A-C-E!”
The heavy artillery was reserved for the last: a silent meditation walk through the neighborhood. A snake of saffron-robed monks and mostly gray-haired women wound its way around the Southside Community Land Trust gardens before breaking into its constituent parts and dispersing.
Martha Yager of the American Friends Service Committee helped lead the procession. This stroll was a far cry from the 1971 May Day antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., when she ran up Massachusetts Avenue fleeing the National Guard and clouds of tear gas.
“It felt like we were in a war,” Yager recalls. “I went back the next day and in the middle of Dupont Circle, there were five tanks facing outward, with soldiers boot-to-boot holding unsheathed bayonets. It really shook to the core my sense of my government being there to protect me.”
That was a different war and a different peace movement. Forty years ago, protest was a violent and angry reaction to America’s misadventures in Vietnam. Citizens immolated themselves on the streets; dinner tables became battlegrounds. In May 1970, after National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, campuses nationwide erupted into waves of strikes, riots and demonstrations shutting down more than 530 colleges. Rock stars wrote anthems to it, the lyrics of which most Baby Boomers can still sing.
As the Iraq War lumbers through its fifth year, support has dwindled to about 30 percent. But the rage that fueled public protests in the 1960s and 70s barely simmers today. Some old hands in the peace movement chalk the complacency up to the all-volunteer military.
“But it’s not the whole answer,” says Mark Stahl, an organizer for the Rhode Island Community Coalition for Peace. “A major factor in Vietnam was the fact that there were a lot of casualties. In Iraq, they have been trying to keep the casualty count down. In the Vietnam War everyone knew someone who had been killed or severely injured.”
Stahl, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, spent those years at the University of California’s Berkeley campus mounting demonstrations on the rail line out of Fort Ord. A group of fifty or so demonstrators would lie across the tracks at 4 a.m. to disrupt the troop trains.
“As the train was approaching, the engineer would be blowing his horn. The poor conductor. At that point, we got up and we had to drag people across the tracks. It was a dramatic stunt,” he says, “the type of thing that grabs people’s attention.”
Save for a February 2003 antiwar demonstration that drew millions worldwide, the peace movement has done little to grab the attention of Congress or the masses. Activist Cindy Sheehan’s Crawford, Texas, vigils and MoveOn’s General Petraeus/Betrayus ad in the New York Times have produced a few flashes of disapproval before sputtering out. In the ensuing four years, activists have had plenty of time to mull their own mistakes.
Shaun Joseph, twenty-seven, a peace activist and a graduate student in computer science at the University of Rhode Island says that the massive 2003 protest proved to be a metaphor.
“It reflected the amount of opposition to the war but also the contradictions that we would face. There was a sense that we put a ton of people on the street, and the administration was still able to charge on ahead,” he says. “It was a wake-up call. We didn’t realize that a lot of folks weren’t prepared to deal with it. And that’s still a constant problem. What can you do that’s effective? I suppose I don’t get depressed. But it’s deeply, deeply frustrating.”
Nonetheless, like President Bush, the state’s most passionate activists have stayed the course, organizing vigils, committing acts of civil disobedience in Congressional offices and demonstrating when Bush spoke at the Naval War College. For Stahl, peacemaking is as much family heritage as a deeply held personal belief. Stahl’s father, then a ministry student, was a pacifist in World War II. Yager participated in her first antiwar demonstration as a high school student. Fourteen years ago, she went to work for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization dedicated to social justice issues and teaching nonviolent responses to conflict. “I’ve been doing this work for as long as I can remember,” she says.
For some newcomers, dissent is a departure from tradition. Jacque Amoureux hails from a conservative Idaho family.
After her younger brother, Brice, joined the Marine Reserves and was deployed to Iraq, Amoureux broke ranks with her parents and joined Military Families Speak Out.
“I was quite worried,” says Amoureux, now a graduate student at Brown University’s political science department. “I also thought I had an obligation to do something. The war began to intersect with my personal life in a very profound way. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to have someone from your family in Iraq fighting in a war that is unnecessary and counterproductive. Families struggle with: Why did I let my family member join the military? Am I doing enough?”
Former National Guardsman Ted Goodnight of North Providence was drawn to the movement after disillusioning tours in Afghanistan and Katrina-battered Mississippi. “In the beginning, to be honest, I drank the Kool-Aid,” he admits.
He ended fifteen years of military service, and a couple years later, became a speaker for Iraq Veterans Against the War.
“What I’m doing now is out of a sense of compassion and duty and a continuation of my oath to defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he says. “I think this is even more valuable because the true objective now is the welfare of the people instead of any private economic agenda.”
Cecelia Lynch, Director of the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Beyond Appeasement: Interpreting Interwar Peace Movements in World Politics, says it’s too early to assess the impact of the peace movement’s latest iteration. Success is a slippery term to apply to any social movement and ending the war is a narrow measure. Antiwar activists have shifted the debate toward the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq. But the Web has changed the tactics of mobilization.
“I do think it is probably harder—comparatively—to get people out in the streets on a consistent basis,” Lynch says. “A lot of things are channeled into the Internet, so there are all sorts of petitions on the Web, and maybe people think, ‘I’m doing my bit.’ I don’t think it’s easy to dismiss the opposition’s Internet activism, because politicians pick it up and use it.”
Even so, the clicks of a million mice don’t make much of a roar. Persuasion must surely take human form. For months, Jacque Amoureux has been planting herself outside the Washington offices of Jim Langevin, Patrick Kennedy and Jack Reed, reading letters from soldiers and lobbying them to look beyond their short-term political interests.
“For some reason, it’s difficult for them to see the human cost of the war,” says Amoureux. “But the war will end, and the peace movement will make a difference.”