What the Peace Movement Has Wrought and Opportunities for the Future
Millions of peace activists throughout the United States and the world were unable to prevent the Iraq War from starting and likewise, have been unsuccessful in stopping it. Some might say that the peace movement has been a failure.
However, something has changed among peace activists over these past five years of war. They focus less on George W. Bush and more on expanding the peace agenda through good works and advocacy.
For example, in my town last week peace activists held yet another night of fun and entertainment. This time it was a fundraiser for playground equipment for the newly-established Catholic Worker House whose focus is on poor neighborhood children.
A few weeks before an improv troupe put on a fundraiser for our district's Department of Peace (www.thepeacealliance.org) and the local peace group.
One of our group's latest projects is Iraqi Health Now, which collects medicines and medical supplies to send them to Iraq where doctors need gauze, blood bags antibiotics and syringes. They sent their first box of supplies in December 2006. Last month they sent two semi-trucks full of medicine, supplies, toys and food. This local initiative is now part of Healing the Children.
Peace activists across the nation have also been circulating petitions to support Rep. Dennis Kucinich's bill to establish a U.S. Department of Peace, which calls for providing practical, nonviolent solutions to the problems of domestic and international conflict.
Global warming, energy conservation and the local food movement have also captured the imaginations and volunteer hours of more and more activists.
Of course, peace activists continue to hold weekly street demonstrations as well as observances for the war's fifth anniversary and the death of 4,000th American soldier. Many activists still do these things because they wish to witness for peace, stand up for victims of war, and challenge the government's war policies. They also want their fellow citizens to know there IS and continues to be opposition to the war, especially since the mainstream media tend to shy away from covering peace and justice issues.
If horn honking at public demonstrations is a measure of support for peace, then activists have noticed fewer nasty remarks, scowls and bird flipping salutes. Nevertheless, those people who changed their minds about the war haven't visibly joined the peace movement. Even the numbers of peace activists attending the demonstrations and activities have dwindled considerably.
Instead, local peace groups seem to nurture a "remnant crowd" that has consistently spoken out against war and injustice over the past 40 years. They have created a loving and open community, which allows them to keep the peace and justice agenda alive among themselves and among local citizens.
Unfortunately, neither African Americans nor Hispanics have showed up at peace demonstrations, at least in my town. Muslims and Arabs come out occasionally, but mostly for special events. Young people are barely involved and some college students even admit they don't know a war is going on! (Actually, I find young people are more focused on the environmental movement.)
In other words, the peace activists have been largely composed of white, middle-aged, middle-class people. (In my research, the same types of people comprised the pro-war contingent.)
Fortunately, peace groups' demonstrations, events, letters to the editor, visits to congressional representatives give the peace agenda a PUBLIC face and these efforts have surely contributed to declining support for the war.
In 2003 before the war began, 43 percent of Americans were against the war compared to 66 percent last month, according to CNN opinion poll. That's real progress for peace.
However, Scott Ritter in his 2006 book, Target Iran, articulated another reason for the rise in anti-war sentiment. The former Marine Corps intelligence officer and U.N. weapons inspector claims that Americans like to win wars so when it looks like we're losing, we also lose interest in the war.
This sentiment may have influenced the 2006 election when voters kicked out Republicans who supported the war and took over the majority in both the U.S. House and Senate. In February 2007 negative perceptions of the war were at 67 percent.
However, a year later the momentum changed. A February 2008 Pew Research Center poll found an even split (48-48) among Americans who believe the military effort in Iraq is going well and those who don't. Obviously, the administration that sold this unjust, immoral, unnecessary war is now doing another PR job on Americans by touting the success of the surge.
Unfortunately, they are believing it. And it's no wonder. These days there is precious little mention of the war in the mainstream media and certainly nothing on the death and displacement of Iraqis or the destruction of their country.
During the presidential primaries, candidates largely skirted the subject.
Concerns about the wobbling economy and dire mortgage crisis have superseded concerns about the war even though half a trillion dollars have been sunk into this fiasco.
One other difficult development peace activists have been unable to prevent is the increasingly negative perception of Muslims. The Progressive (February 2008) reported on the dastardly ways Republican presidential candidates tried to capitalize on Americans' fears of Muslims by associating them with terrorism.
Likewise, films like Stop Loss illustrate that we are fomenting dangerous prejudicial feelings in our soldiers who fight in the Middle East. This stuff will spread as frustration over the endless war and the sinking economy increases.
Finally, if the peace movement has one glaring failing, it is in its relationship to the U.S. military. That work seems to have been taken up by military families and Bush supporters in the form of sending care packages and participating in send-off and welcome home ceremonies.
However, peace activists have a real opportunity here to demonstrate that peacemaking is about reconciliation. Returning soldiers need to be reunited with the community as full and participating citizens, says war psychologist Ed Tick in his book War and the Soul.
Tick, who has been working with Vietnam veterans with PTSD since 1978 and is now working with Iraq and Afghanistan War vets, says that soldiers must be forgiven for the acts they have committed on behalf of their nation. Who better than peace activists can do that!
Reconciliation with our Republican neighbors is yet another opportunity for peace activists in order to heal the divisions of our country after this disaster of an administration leaves office. I'm finding that more and more Republicans are expressing their painful embarrassment, utter dismay and sorrowful disorientation at having lost their party to the Bush gang.
So bemoaning and denigrating Bush (especially after he's gone) does little for the real work ahead of us including environmental degradation, global warming, universal health care, housing, restoration of the public domain, post-carbon energy alternatives, education, etc.
Hope and integrity are qualities that characterize peace activists even though many Americans consider these qualities naíve. Let's show them we CAN make a difference!
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.