The peace activists who protested the Bush administration’s march to war five years ago take no satisfaction in knowing that they were right in opposing this ill-fated Iraq war from the outset. All they want is for people to listen to them now.
And what they have to say is this: If we are ever going to get all of our troops out, it will be because of pressure that starts at the grass-roots level and works its way up to the top of the political chain – not the other way around.
When the Bush administration spewed its lies about weapons of mass destruction and fantasies about invading troops being greeted with tossed bouquets, members of the peace movement tried to warn us not to make what became a mistake of epic proportions. But America didn’t listen. The drumbeat for war was too loud, drowning out the voices of opposition. When not being ignored by mainstream media, activists were on the receiving end of ridicule from squawking chicken hawks.
Before the war, nearly 60 percent of the country supported an invasion of Iraq – an invasion supposedly made necessary by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the dictator’s close working relationship with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network. It would be an invasion that would cost only about $50 million, we were told, with a majority of the troops expected to be back home within a matter of months.
History, of course, proved all of that false. Now, with 4,000 American soldiers dead and another 30,000 U.S. troops wounded in this conflict, with tens of thousands – and perhaps hundreds of thousands – of Iraqis killed and 4.5 million more displaced, there is no room for gloating by those who urged us not to invade. Instead there is only frustration that their voices were not heard.
After five long and bloody years, the doves aren’t despairing. Instead, they are determined.
“The peace movement hasn’t been marginalized,” says Leslie Cagan, co-chair of the national anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice. “We’ve been mainstreamed.”
Public opinion has flipped since the start of the war. Recent polls show that about 60 percent of Americans think the war was a mistake. But that shift hasn’t resulted in an outpouring of protesters taking to the streets. Rather, the war seems to be slipping from the public’s consciousness.
Wendy Hamilton, director of the Detroit-based peace group Swords Into Plowshares, is perplexed by the lack of outrage: “Where’s the anger? Where’s the indignation? Why aren’t people saying we were lied to and doing something about it?”
Part of the answer is cynicism. People believe that nothing is going to change as long as Bush is in office, so what’s the point? “A lot of people, I believe, think that speaking out won’t make any difference,” Hamilton says.
Deidra Lynch, a CodePink Orlando organizer, agrees: “People feel hopeless,” she says. “They don’t understand why `the government` is not responding. They don’t feel it will accomplish anything because they’re not listening or responding.”
It doesn’t help that even after the Democrats took over Congress in 2006, the Bush administration has continued to wage war unimpeded by an opposition party too frightened of being labeled “anti-troop” to do anything about it.
The anti-war movement’s current apathy is also influenced by a feeling of disconnection between everyday life on the home front and the wars underway. During World War II, gasoline, tires and even food were rationed. In this conflict, however, instead of being asked to plant Victory gardens and buy war bonds, we’re urged to hit the stores and visit Disneyland as a show of patriotism. In Vietnam, the anti-war movement was spurred by a draft that forced young men to war, and too often to their deaths. Trying to bring about an end to the war, for those activists, was a matter of self-preservation.
Today’s wars are fought by an all-volunteer military and an army of private contractors. These battles don’t hit so close to home. People are more concerned about making sure there is food on their table, and Iraq can seem far, far away. Says Hamilton: “People have so many other kinds of concerns: Will I keep my job? Will I keep my house? Will I be able to afford college for my kids? These are the things that they are most worried about.”
A recent poll found that only about one-fourth of all Americans were aware that nearly 4,000 of their countrymen have died in Iraq. The survey results were announced with a headline that declared: “Awareness of Iraq War Fatalities Plummets.”
The key to change, activists say, is not to expect change to happen at the top. Work at the grass-roots level involving masses of people is what’s needed to alter the direction this country is taking.
It is not enough to just show up at the polls on Election Day. You have to become active and make your voice heard on an ongoing basis. Contact your representatives in Congress. Come out for protests. Circulate petitions. Donate to peace groups.
But that action doesn’t come in a vacuum. As CodePink’s Lynch says, “What really makes people get mad enough? Maybe when they have a kid or their neighbor comes back with no arms. We don’t face reality. We have to take responsibility for our government. We let it get this way.”
An earlier version of this story appeared in Detroit’s Metro Times. Additional reporting by Deanna Morey.firstname.lastname@example.org