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Is anti-war activism on the wane? What can revive it?

After the anti-war march at the 25th NATO summit which opened in Chicago on May 20th, 2012, MELISSA KANDEL of Medill News Service, Chicago, interviewed PATRICK BOYLAN, one of the founding members of U.S. Citizens for Peace & Justice - Rome, on the apparent decline of the peace movement over the years.

USC4P&J had held a solidarity sit-in in front of the Colosseum the day before the May 20th protest in Chicago, but it was one of very few anti-NATO demonstrations taking place worldwide that week-end.

Melissa asked: "Has the desire to protest dwindled in the past several decades (thinking Vietnam vs. Afghanistan War...)? Why aren't the youth and citizens in general more fired up about the issues and problems you have identified with NATO? Or do you not see this to be the case...?"

Patrick's response follows.

First, let me point out that the differences, while quantitative, are not qualitative. The servicemen who hurled their medals back at the NATO command in Chicago last Sunday (see video), did so with no less fury than their elders did in 1971 during the Vietnam protests. So don't be fooled, anti-war militancy is still alive and kicking!

Still, they and the other marchers in Chicago, while an impressive 15,000 in number, were fewer overall than those who protested against the Iraq war in 2003 - tens of thousands in each of five major U.S. cities plus countless protests elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world - or the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated against the Vietnam war in the 1960's and '70's. Why?

It is NOT, I believe, due to an increasing pro-war attitude in the U.S.. Polls constantly show that the majority of the population opposes, for example, the war in Afghanistan.

But I do see four obstacles to anti-war activism today.

(1.) First is the feeling of pointlessness . Several of our members here in Rome have told us that "our protests over these past few years seem to have served no purpose, the government just doesn't listen, we feel useless waving signs."

And it's not just a feeling. In the midst of the anti-Iraq-war protests, a journalist informed Vice President Dick Cheney that, according to the latest opinion polls, two-thirds of Americans considered the war not worth fighting. To which Cheney retorted: "So?".

True, Cheney and Bush lost out to Obama and Biden in the following elections. But their war policies still go on, fundamentally unchanged, because in Washington it's the lobbies (representing the 1%) that shape policy -- especially war policy and especially after Citizens United. And lobbyists do not care what protesters say any more than their man Cheney did. Thus there are still U.S. contractors and death squads stationed indefinitely in Iraq (as Bush had programmed), there will be troops in Afghanistan for ten more years (according to the Karzai-Obama deal, in spite of the announced "withdrawal"), and there are ever more bombing missions over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that kill 90 innocent civilians for every dozen "suspected terrorists" blown up. And let's not forget the massive air strikes we just conducted during the Libyan war (50,000 dead) and those we may conduct soon in Syria or Iran.

Well, if this is the situation - and with a Nobel Peace Prize president! - is it surprising that pacifists, feeling useless, have begun to say: "Demonstrations serve no purpose any more"?

Thus only a core group of us "U.S. Citizens for Peace & Justice - Rome" -- those who simply cannot stand still while their government commits war crimes -- continues to mount occasional protests. Protests that serve to stir a conscience or two and to "keep the USC4P&J shop open" until things change. And I'll say at the end why I think things CAN change.

But there are other reasons as well that explain why peace activism has diminished among liberals in the middle and upper middle classes these past few years.

(2.) The second reason is "attention fatigue". The War Establishment, beginning with Bush's proclamation of a "permanent war on terror", rightly calculated that, if a war could be prolonged sufficiently (Afghanistan is the longest in U.S. history), then "attention fatigue" would set in and people would no longer be receptive. They would simply say: "We know there's a war, we know that innocent people are dying, we're sorry about that, but we just can't take any more of this talk so please let's change the subject." And the pro-war corporate media, of course, are only too willing to go along by downplaying the news of the war, especially the bad news.

(3.) The third reason is the most insidious one. After the experience of the massive Vietnam protests, the Establishment learned to sell wars, when possible, as "humanitarian interventions" and to recruit leading liberal celebrities as supporters. This has made many peace activists confused, immobile or even supporters themselves. Until, of course, they discover that the pro-war corporate media has been hugely exaggerating the "atrocities" committed by the "blood-thirsty dictator" to be eliminated and that U.S. "humanitarian bombing" turns out to be mostly for the purpose of taking over the country in question by bringing to power a pro-Western "rebel" government, just as cruel, blood-thirsty and corrupt as the dictator eliminated. But then it is too late: those pacifists who supported the war, caught up in their uncertainties, understandably become less militant

The inventor of the expression "humanitarian bombing" - although he later denied it - was none other than Václav Havel, who called for a NATO intervention in Serbia in 1999. The concept, however, goes back to the first Gulf War (1990), which was sold to pacifists with a fake news story (prepared by a New York PR firm) of Iraqi troops killing Kuwaiti babies in their incubators.

But the best example is the Western-backed coup d'étatin Libya (2011), preceded by a carefully orchestrated propaganda barrage. Video footage purporting to show mass burial graves for the innocent civilian victims of Gaddafi's mercenary troops and helicopter gunboats hit the media just five days after the first uprising in Benghazi on February 17th. The video was immediately denounced by bloggers as a hoax (they discovered Google Earth pictures of the graves dating six months earlier, before any unrest). The existence of air attacks and mercenary soldiers was also shown to be unproven (Russia, for example, furnished radar evidence that there had been no overflights). But corporate media made no rectification; instead, they gave ample space to a letter signed by 70 NGO's demanding an immediate intervention in Libya to stop the carnage; the next day, February 23rd, in several countries including Italy, the media published a similar appeal signed by leading local progressive personalities (the Italians even held a demonstration in front of Parliament a day later). NATO was only too happy to oblige and, after some to-and-fro in the Security Council, the "humanitarian bombing" began.

Now, let me ask you: how, in so short a space of time, was it possible to produce a juridically complex 800-word appeal, giving the legal justification for intervention, and get it signed by so many people perfectly synchronized? My guess is that lobbyists for the War Establishment, with good credentials in the various national liberal communities, had, behind the scenes, even before the first uprising, prepared the Appeal and the list of people to contact and had perhaps even primed some of them by describing to them the horrors of the Gaddafi regime in the past.

Which means that what really happened in Libya may have been something like this: first there was the beginning of an "Arab Spring" but it was immediately hijacked by the anti-Gaddafists in Benghazi, the traditionally hostile city. It now seems clear that these people had long been armed and trained by the West, in the hopes of staging a coup d'étatone day. The "Arab Spring" was their chance. Meanwhile the Western powers who were sponsoring them also recruited, according to my hypothesis, lobbyists instructed to win over Western public opinion. At the first gunshots between Gaddafi's troops and these ARMED rebels, in action as of the second anti-Gaddafi demonstration on February 18th (with bystanders caught in the crossfire), the lobbyists started promoting appeals worldwide for "humanitarian bombing" to defend the "unarmed protesters" and facilitate the take-over by the Western-sponsored rebels. Which is what happened. The ensuing war killed an estimated 50,000 people only to bring to power a regime which, after ceding Libyan oil contracts to Western interests, began taking Libya back into the Middle Ages. Worse than under Gaddafi.

All this is, of course, only one possible reconstruction of the events, so I won't insist on it. However, the indisputable fact remains that last year in the case of Libya and afterward in the case of Syria (and in past years in the case of Serbia and of Kuwait), the same scenario unfolds: almost as if by magic, a large number of liberals, normally anti-war, somehow start giving credence to trumped up or exaggerated accounts of atrocities committed by whatever cruel dictator the U.S. wants to eliminate at the time, and start beating the drums for regime change - including "humanitarian bombing" if necessary (but as history shows, once NATO begins enforcing an embargo, somehow bombing always becomes a necessity). This interventionist propaganda from the left has the effect of "manufacturing total consent" (Chomsky's expression), left and right, for each of these wars and of disorientating and weakening the pacifist movement. Two birds with one stone: a masterful strategy, indeed!

Now on to the fourth and last explanation.

(4.) Besides the psychological factors already mentioned (1. the feeling of uselessness, 2. attention fatigue and 3. induced disorientation), pacifists today, with respect to those in the 1970's, have "lessened personal involvement".

By that term I simply mean that people react the most when something touches them physically or relationship-wise. And they react less when there is no personal involvement.

As many commentators have pointed out, the intense activism during the Vietnam war was in large part due to the fact that young, white, middle (and even upper) class kids were being shipped off to die in Vietnam. So their friends and relatives and they themselves - all people used to making their voices heard - began questioning the war and did so stridently.

After Vietnam the military decided to stop the draft and make do with volunteers from those social classes whose voices are never listened to. And this has created the illusion that few people protest the war any more. Of course, it is an illusion to the extent that anti-war demonstrations are actually going on all the time in the U.S. - organized, for example, by the Answer Coalition which draws heavily from the Hispanic and Black communities - but with little or no media coverage, thus the impression that no one is in the streets. It is not, however, an illusion insofar as the educated, largely white, middle and upper classes go: they have effectively abandoned the streets and have fallen mostly silent - for they are no longer as personally involved.

The personal involvement factor also explains, in my opinion, the current Occupy movement. Many people have wondered what has caused the sudden anti-Wall Street activism of all those young, educated people in the streets - after all, they are not being shipped off to Vietnam. True enough, but they ARE being deprived of their future. They are being saddled with huge college debts, left without a job upon graduation, and shut out of their parents' foreclosed homes. Nothing on a scale like this has happened since the Great Depression. So they are, indeed, being hit on a very personal level, just as their elders were in the 1970's because of compulsory military service. Then the Establishment managed to diminish anti-war activism by eliminating the draft and letting, for the most part, the lower classes sacrifice their sons and daughters. Today it will be harder to quell this rebellion against robber baron thievery - the 99% against the 1% - because theft is what makes the System work and the middle and upper classes are the ones that are the most worth fleecing.

These then are the four reasons that, in my opinion, explain the drop in anti-war activism over the years, the fourth reason being the most important.

This means that the challenge anti-war activism faces today is, above all, how to get people to take personal involvement in opposing something (a war) that does not directly touch them physically or relationship-wise.

Of course, as we all know, war BUDGETS do touch people physically - in their pockets! More Defense spending means less social spending. But by linking Defense spending to employment, the War Establishment has turned it into a contest of showing whether, as the Establishment claims, more (and better paying) jobs are created by producing arms than by building schools and roads - which, if true, would compensate for the social cuts. Each side produces its own statistics, without a word on WHAT is produced and what that is USED FOR.

And yet it should be obvious. Schools and roads create wealth by increasing knowledge and interconnections (and thus productivity). Arms create wealth by permitting us to invade or intimidate other countries, killing off anyone who resists, and grabbing the national resources. So both pay off. But is it simply a question of which pays off more? If we accept that logic, then the War Establishment is sure to win the contest, especially since it controls the media. It simply has to convince people that the increased national wealth due to war will more than offset the initial social cuts. (Remember the White House adviser under Bush who rhapsodized over "all that gushy oil" we would be getting out of Iraq?) "And even if arms development ends up creating fewer jobs immediately than school and road construction," the Establishment goes on to say, "high tech arms development spills over into civil applications; this, in turn, creates more new jobs in the long run, and better paying ones, too!" And the mass media echo the refrain over and over.

So although the economic argument AGAINST Defense spending is intrinsically the better one (social spending actually does create more and better paying jobs and higher GDP, both in the short and in the long runs, if all factors are considered), is is hard to prove in a few sound bites. And since the media is in the hands of the Establishment, arguing against war on the basis of economics can even prove to be a boomerang. We need to frame personal involvement in wider terms.

I suggest this:  show people that our resigned acceptance of our country's constant wars and occupations DOES touch us, although in an intangible way. It destroys our moral fiber. THAT is why we should stop acquiescing, independently of all the economic issues.

By accepting to be silent accomplices to the "permanent war on terror" and the "humanitarian wars for democracy" - which we all know are ploys for acquiring wealth and influence by taking over other people's countries, spilling their blood and destroying their homes and infrastructures in the process - we all imperceptibly acquire the shifty eyes of Bush, the crooked smile of Cheney, the obtuse stare of Rumsfeld, and the double face (sincere duplicity) of Obama. For we can no longer call things by their name. Even more, we no longer even want to know. In a word, we have started to become like those political leaders whose evening televised company we resign ourselves to keeping and whose reasonings we slowly make ours. Bit by bit, moral decay begins to set in, and extend itself even to our private lives.

The fundamental issue is therefore ethical and one would have thought that, for this reason, the Righteous Right would have been the first to decry the Bush-Obama wars as immoral. Instead, fundamentalist evangelists have managed to sanctify American imperialism in the eyes of their flocks, and stigmatize the wishy-washy liberal pacifists who shirk from defending their country (and especially their country's "interests" -- i.e., the profits of the industrial-military complex and the 1%).

So it is time for a counter offensive. It is time to launch a LAY campaign for moralization, one that calls things by their name and says that invading other people's countries to get their oil goes under the name of "theft". We need oil? Then we should simply buy it, as the majority of the other most-prosperous countries do today, not make war to grab it. And what's the true name of the practice of basing standing armies in other countries (through NATO) to make sure they do business with us? It is "protection racket". And so we should reject that practice and tell our leaders not to globalize NATO, but to compete fairly with China, Brazil or Russia, strictly on the quality of our products and through negotiated resource sharing, as the majority of the other most-prosperous countries are doing today. Only our CEOs and their major shareholders -- certainly not us, who end up with the chicken feed -- win big by using violence and strong-arm tactics to gain economic and political supremacy worldwide. Like mafia bosses.

In other words, let us recognize that we do have a "personal involvement" in the ethics of our country's economic, military and foreign policies: it is our own personal integrity, as well as that of those we love. That integrity is intimately conditioned by our complicity with -- or antagonism to -- such policies. And let us not forget that personal integrity is the foundation of the quality of life that we, and those we love, will end up having. Thus "politics" is NOT, as many people claim, a dirty word or a stupid contest to see "who's in and who's out", but rather a mutual effort to weave principled relationships that make us truly human. Whether we succeed or not, WE will be different by making the effort, just as we will be different -- in another way -- if we shirk from making that effort.

What about the other obstacles to political activism I mentioned? The feeling of uselessness? The attention fatigue? The induced disorientation? Things we have all experienced...

I believe that we can overcome them and revive the anti-war movement by doing as the CanG8 and Occupy demonstrators did in Chicago. Because the "No to NATO" protest was not a one-day event. Before Sunday's march there was a year of community building, in Chicago and elsewhere as well, around specific, local, felt problems: opposition to cases of eviction or union busting or school closure or bank rip-offs or racial discrimination, and so on. This generated energy and purpose; it beat fatigue; it gave a feeling of usefulness.

Moreover these fights were constantly linked to the reason why we find ourselves constantly at war, i.e. the exploitation of the 99% by the 1%. People began to see that what the 1% does to us locally, with home foreclosures, is the same as what the 1% does to us nationally with piloted Retirement Fund bankruptcies, and worldwide when it drives developing countries into debt dependency or invades them to control their resources directly (which is a "foreclosure" on a planetary scale).

Thus in Chicago last Sunday the marchers were not '68 style idealists - against war because they were for flower-power -- but down-to-earth Occupiers, against war because it is the long arm of the same exploitation they had been fighting at home for months and months.

Let's learn from them.


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