You Can't Beat Something With Nothing
When our little neighborhood Iraq Moratorium group started up in San Francisco last September, our handouts declared that the Moratorium would "be an escalating, monthly series of actions across the nation demanding an end to the war." Didn't work out that way, though.
Our group is still going, all right -- ten or fifteen of us have been out with our antiwar signs on several street corners on the third Friday of the month ever since, handing out flyers asking passers-by to call Congress or take some other action demanding an immediate end to the war. Unfortunately, however, it's been the war that has escalated over that time period and not the antiwar movement. They called it a "surge" this time, but however you describe it, the fact is that since we started there are more troops in Iraq and fewer demonstrators on the streets.
A cynic might say the country has forgotten there's a war going on at all, or at least wants to forget. Certainly you could get that impression from what's in the news or, more properly speaking, what's not in the news: The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports combined coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (remember that one?), which had accounted for 25 percent of total American news reporting last September had fallen to just 3 percent by this past May. And so far as antiwar activity goes, it's been so slim as to raise the question of whether it even merits being characterized as a "movement" these days.
So certainly we don't bounce out there each month thinking we're about to turn things around. It's more that we trudge out feeling that we have to do something. The reception we actually get on the street is fairly gratifying: drivers honking in support and a fair number of people even thanking us. There are a few who do tell us that we shouldn't be there, though, not because they disagree with us, but because they think we're ineffectual. One says we should be in some other state -- like Arkansas. Another suggests we need to go to Pacific Heights, a wealthier neighborhood where she probably reckons you might even find an occasional Republican. One just tells us, "You're preaching to the converted," as he turns the corner into the supermarket.
Now far be it from me to claim that our little protest has moved the end of this war forward even a nanosecond. And I don't mean to make too much of offhand comments of people on the street, yet they do seem to reflect a widespread if seldom articulated point of view -- that nothing we say or do about the war matters, so it's okay to say or do nothing. I once tried to interest a friend in Berkeley in a monthly antiwar protest but she argued that since she lived in the district of Representative Barbara Lee, arguably the most antiwar member of Congress, it would be pointless. She didn't suggest doing anything else, though, just as none of the people on the street indicated any intention to get on planes or even crosstown buses to protest more effectually than we were doing.
By this logic, the burden of opposing the war would seem to fall on those whose congressional representatives who aren't so good, say in Arkansas or Wyoming. We who have had the good sense to live in the antiwar regions can take rest of the war off. Conversely, I would imagine that the do-nothing argument in Idaho runs something like this: The people in Berkeley and San Francisco and New York and Boston aren't even making all that much noise about the war, so there can't be too much I can do in Boise.
During the Vietnam War, one antiwar group called itself Individuals Against the Crime of Silence, its name derived from the post-World War II understanding that 1930s Germany showed it was not okay to just quietly accept your government's policies. To raise that principle again in contemporary America is certainly not to suggest that our situation resembles that of Nazi-era Germany. On the contrary, while there was a good answer as to why the Germans didn't do more to protest their government's actions -- the ones who did were sent to concentration camps -- there is no such excuse in the U.S. For all the discussion of the erosion of civil liberties under the Bush Administration, the fact is the overwhelming majority of us face absolutely no negative consequences for protesting this war. And yet, somehow, with no draft and so much of the war privatized, silence doesn't seem so much of a crime this time around.
Now a lot of people may say that all of this little protest stuff doesn't amount to a hill of beans compared to the question of who wins the presidential election, and I won't necessarily argue with that. But just as it was a fallacy to think that voting in a Democratic House in 2006 would end the war when there weren't a sufficient number of antiwar votes in Congress to do it, it's also a mistake to think that merely defeating John McCain will do the trick either. Barack Obama may not speak of a hundred year occupation, as McCain does, but he has never pledged to withdraw all American troops by the end of his term in 2013 -- and he would face immense pressure from the other side even if he had.
It's far from clear exactly what things we need to do to end this war, but one thing is clear -- nothing is not one of them.
Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco.