Can the Peace Movement Reinvent Itself?

Todd Gitlin's "Letters to a Young Activist" will be published by Basic Books in April. He is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

For months now, the antiwar movement has defined itself in opposition to George W. Bush, to his bulldozer style, his hellbent drive toward war with Iraq, his barely disguised contempt for dissent -- domestic and foreign -- and his preference for "shock and awe" over treaties. The movement may have been hazy about what it wanted, but it was crystal clear about what it didn't want: war with Saddam Hussein. At this juncture, with war launched, the antiwar movement faces both a tactical dilemma and a programmatic one. Up to now, organizers have aimed to prevent the outbreak of war. So how do they keep the troops energized despite their evident defeat? And what should their new goals be?

But first a look at the protesters' successes to date. For all its ragged edges, the movement against war in Iraq mushroomed into a global force unprecedented in speed and scale. After a slow start, even the myopic mainstream press eventually latched on to the immensity of the movement afoot around the world. Never in the history of the world had so many marched in common cause.

It all began with a handful of the usual suspects last fall, but in just a few months millions of people were protesting in demonstrations worldwide. Scores of city councils, including Los Angeles', passed resolutions opposing a war. E-mail petitions circulated, newspaper ads were placed, churches and unions passed resolutions. Capitol Hill was besieged by protest faxes. It quickly added up to more than isolated protests: A genuine movement was born, with all the brio and confusion, the ingenuity and cant, the multiple tactics and squabbling styles and the heated political conflicts that movements embody.

Now comes the fork in the road. The militants are already arguing (with conviction and some logic) that conventional tactics have failed and have concluded (with equal conviction but less logic) that it's time for an upturn in civil disobedience. United for Peace and Justice, the coalition that cosponsored the huge demonstrations in New York and elsewhere Feb. 15, has now endorsed civil disobedience in Washington. By Friday, some 1,400 demonstrators had been arrested in San Francisco sit-downs. We can expect more traffic blocking and the like. On the edges of protest, unsupported by the coalition, there will probably be window smashing and other violence. Producers will round up the usual photogenic clashes between police and protesters for the evening news.

Expressive politics of this sort reflect understandable anger and desperation, but they are unlikely to affect the course of events -- except possibly to help turn a majority of the population against the antiwar movement, as happened during the later phases of the Vietnam War. A rise in militancy at a time when the majority of Americans are rallying around the president (as majorities generally do when wars start) would amount to a politics of futility -- a cathartic performance piece with precious little chance of winning new supporters and a vastly greater chance of annoying, even enraging, the majority.

Instead of focusing strictly on tactics, the movement needs to begin thinking not simply about what it will protest but also about what it will affirm. Some will think it sufficient to march behind the slogan, "U.S. out of Iraq." But now that war is launched -- however wrongheadedly, however unnecessarily, however infuriatingly -- a simple "no" is not enough.

The antiwar movement hoped to avert harm to the Iraqis, and its commitment to the Iraqis shouldn't end now that Bush has gone to war. A judicious U.S. postwar policy will be a necessary (though hardly sufficient) condition for a reasonably democratic Iraq. Left to its own devices, the Bush White House is unlikely to rise to the occasion. But what will the movement say when, as seems likely, victorious American troops are greeted as liberators by many Iraqis? Will protesters turn their backs on the whole unholy mess? Or turn their efforts toward ensuring that something decent -- or at least less indecent -- follows from the war?

The Hussein apologists who sponsored the earliest antiwar demonstrations under the banner of International ANSWER are certain to fail the test: Their knees jerk to the refrain that nothing is worse than American power. But what will the rest of the antiwar movement do now that war is no longer a fear but a fact? Will anyone advocate that the U.S. support a democratic, federal, disarmed Iraq, as opposed to rule by the generals or a decapitated Baath Party? Can the movement spare some words of solidarity with Iraqi democrats? Will it press the White House to open up postwar Iraq to rebuilding by other parties -- including the United Nations and the hated French and Germans -- instead of turning that miserable country into a wholly owned subsidiary of the USA? And what, in turn, would those who burn to see Iraq freed of Hussein's terror have to say about Bush turning Iraq into an American base for future forays into Iran or Syria or anywhere else he might choose? On the prospect of unending war, the movement's "no" would indeed come in handy. But "U.S. out of everywhere" is a self-defeating reflex when only U.S. pressure on Israel and the Palestinian Authority stands a chance of moving the region toward peace. Do those who deplore American power indiscriminately, whatever its uses, think that the Sharon government will ever uproot Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza on its own?

The issues are complex, not easily reduced to slogans on posters. Perhaps the next step should be to reprise another Vietnam-era institution: teach-ins, genuine exchanges of informed ideas where arguments confront arguments and people learn from each other. A teach-in is an antidote to the kind of TV pundit fests broadcast nightly, in which barking heads face off with shrill sound bites. The times demand that we explore the big questions in earnest and from many perspectives. If teach-ins turn into pacifist rallies that, however sincere, shirk the awful dilemmas, they will be next to useless.

No position in America is likely to weather the next terrible days with its purity unscathed. None deserves to.

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