A Moratorium Wired to Stop the War

Though Americans disapprove of President Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq by more than two to one, they don't seem to be expressing that disapproval to anyone but pollsters. A plan to establish a monthly Iraq Moratorium Day may provide a way for them to do so.

Refitting an idea from the Vietnam era to the age of the Internet, organizers of the Iraq Moratorium Day are inviting ordinary Americans to demand an end to the war in targeted activities in their local communities and viral activities online. The goal is a "monthly expression of determination to end the war."

The initiators, a handful of individuals from different corners of the antiwar movement, are asking people to make a simple pledge:

"I hereby make a commitment that on Friday, September 21, 2007, and the third Friday of every subsequent month I will break my daily routine and take some action, by myself or with others, to end the War in Iraq."

US Labor Against the War and Progressive Democrats of America have already signed on to the Moratorium effort. Individual supporters include some of the usual suspects in the antiwar movement--Susan Sarandon, Howard Zinn, Anne Wright, Tom Hayden and Eve Ensler, as well as Edwidge Danticat, Danny Glover and Gold Star dad Fernando Suarez de Solar. But the movement is also tapping unusual suspects like Adam Neiman, CEO of the fair-trade fashion house No Sweat, actress Mercedes Ruehl and the antiwar Freeway Blogger.

"We felt that it was critical to move beyond the periodic national demonstrations in Washington, DC, New York and/or San Francisco, and instead develop and advance an approach that encourages increasingly massive local actions that suggests, more than anything else, no more business-as-usual," said Bill Fletcher Jr., a Moratorium organizer who is former president of TransAfrica Forum. "The Iraq Moratorium will allow local actions integrally connected at a national level such that each effort is understood and felt to be part of a national movement without at the same time creating a new organization or coalition."

Moratorium activities will range from wearing black armbands to not buying gas; from writing letters to politicians and the media to vigils, rallies and teach-ins; from special religious services to music, art and cultural events; from film showings and lectures to student-initiated alternative classes.

Organizers will work with netroots activists to post video of Moratorium activities on the site and on YouTube and similar sites. Poetry about the war will be solicited, and website visitors will be asked to help choose the best to be included in an anthology. Working groups have been formed to spread the word in the blogosphere.

Poised to participate is Joseph DeLappe, an art professor at the University of Nevada who has become a minor sensation on YouTube for Dead in Iraq, an online memorial and protest. For the past fourteen months he has periodically logged on to America's Army, a Pentagon-funded online video game designed to lure new young recruits to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he refuses to play the game according to Pentagon rules.

Once online, DeLappe's avatar immediately drops his weapon and waits to die by the hand of one of the more than 10 million "virtual warriors" who play regularly. After he is killed, DeLappe begins typing in the name, age, service branch and the date of death of soldiers who have died in Iraq. His goal is to record each of the more than 3,500 US military deaths to date. DeLappe views the Internet as a logical place for Moratorium protests to unfold.

"The Moratorium project is important in that it creates an opportunity to involve individuals in actions, however small, in bringing an end to this war," DeLappe told The Nation. "I sense that people want to be involved yet are frustrated by traditional modes of protest that are more often than not ignored by the media and politicians. We must find creative ways to utilize the new modes of communication made possible through the Internet. The fact that so much of what is new and interesting on the net is, in fact, user-created (YouTube, flickr, etc.) provides a wellspring of unique opportunities for protest."

The Vietnam Moratorium

On April 29, 1969, a group of antiwar student body presidents and campus newspaper editors--led by David Hawk, a divinity student on leave from Union Theological Seminary active in Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign, who had recently refused military induction--met with top Nixon Administration officials Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman in the White House Situation Room. On their way out, the student leaders told the press, "We have to resume our efforts to stop the war, because these people aren't going to."

Meanwhile, Boston businessman Jerome Grossman proposed a series of short, monthly general strikes to "enable a broad segment of the American people to participate in a legal and traditional protest action which will have a painful effect upon all with power and influence."

Hawk and other activists quickly signed on to the idea of the escalating monthly actions, but to make them sound less confrontational they changed the label from a general strike to the Vietnam Moratorium. They opened an office in Washington and began tracking down hundreds of students leaders on summer vacation. Their plan was to roll out the first Moratorium on campuses October 15, then start recruiting in the surrounding communities for the second Moratorium a month later.

"Our strategy got blown out of the water, because it caught on like wildfire," Hawk said. Veteran peace activist Sidney Peck said the Moratorium "allowed people to express their opposition to the war in a way that was comfortable. It could be wearing an armband, it could be honking your horn, it could be leaving your lights on. No matter what your politics were, if you were against the war, here was a chance to express it."

The Moratorium won significant political support. Representative Morris Udall, who was running for Speaker of the House, told a Moratorium staffer who had asked for his endorsement, "I can do more if I'm Speaker, and I won't be Speaker if I do this." The next morning, Udall called the staffer back. "Look, I've thought about it overnight and haven't slept very much. What I said to you last night is fundamentally wrong. I ought to do what I think is the right thing to do, not what is...politically expedient. Use my name."

Millions of Americans in thousands of communities participated in the first Vietnam Moratorium Day. Everywhere it was different--candlelight processions, readings of the names of Americans killed in the war, church services, public meetings. White-coated doctors, dark-suited lawyers and young suburban mothers joined the protests. Life Magazine called it "a display without historical parallel, the largest expression of public dissent ever seen in this country."

A second Moratorium a month later coincided with a planned November 15 rally in Washington. Crowds estimated by the newspapers at 250,000 and by independent observers as nearly a million, streamed into Washington. Attorney General John Mitchell told his wife, "Looking out the Justice Department it looked like the Russian revolution."

By then, though, the leadership of the peace movement was splintering and the Moratorium movement was running out of steam. But in retrospect, some historians say it played a significant role in forestalling further escalation of the Vietnam War. Unbeknownst to those planning the Moratorium, Nixon was simultaneously planning Operation Duck Hook, which would include massive bombing of Hanoi, the mining of rivers and harbors, the bombing of dikes, a ground invasion of North Vietnam and perhaps even the use of nuclear weapons. According to Who Spoke Up?, a history of the anti-Vietnam War movement by Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, "The antiwar sentiment generated and aired in the fall of 1969 made it politically impossible for the President to proceed with his plan. As a result, thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese and American lives were spared."

Macro Protest, Micro Protest

Since the US invasion of Iraq, except for a small corps of antiwar activists, efforts to bring demonstrators to the streets have consistently faltered. The Moratorium idea developed in recognition of the fact that the antiwar movement needs to adapt to the forms of self-expression that people find most congenial today--even if they are very different from the mass mobilizations that drew people in the past.

If people go to Amazon instead of the bookstore, Netflix instead of the movie theater and MySpace to meet new friends, perhaps the media and the antiwar movement shouldn't just be counting how many people show up at demonstrations in Washington, DC, to measure the scope of social protest.

Micro-resistance may well be the mobilization of the future, with people exploring new kinds of protest wherever they can, whether at the computer or on the local street corner. If so, the question for organizers is how to connect and amplify the thousands of antiwar micro-activities that go unnoticed every day.

The Iraq Moratorium could link and amplify the micro-protests as varied as Joseph DeLappe's online activism and the small but eloquent voice of Cameron Penny.

Penny, a 12-year-old poet from Michigan, likewise exemplifies the principle: "Cast down your protest where you may." A poem he wrote stunned the audience at a Poets Against the War reading in New York City:

If you are lucky in this life
A window will appear on a battlefield between two armies
And when the soldiers look into the window
They don't see their enemies
They see themselves as children
And they stop fighting
And go home and go to sleep
When they wake up, the land is well again.

Can a moratorium work today? The Iraq War, fought with a volunteer army, so far hasn't sparked the level of college protests students felt then, with the draft breathing down their necks. But opposition to presidential war policy is far more widespread now than in 1969, when Americans supported President Nixon's handling of the Vietnam war two to one.

To some, Penny's poem represents merely the innocent dreams of a child; DeLappe's actions may seem little more than a gesture of high-tech despair. But if the Moratorium can link a child poet's dream of peace, an artist's interference and a Pentagon war game, it might also open a virtual window on a very real battlefield.

Jeremy Brecher is a historian whose books include Strike!, Globalization from Below, and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt). He has received five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He is a co-founder of WarCrimesWatch.org.

Brendan Smith is a legal analyst whose books include Globalization From Below and, with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, of In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan).

(c) 2007 The Nation

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