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Dismantling Peace Movement Myths

Frida Berrigan

A speech for Peace Action Maine on April 26th, 2008

* * *

Thanks so much for inviting me and for making me feel so welcome. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to say this evening.

Frankly, it is a tall order to stand up in front of a group of people who have just eaten and be expected to say anything that can compete with the natural digestive process. And it is tough to fly from New York and assume that what I would prepare to say would automatically be relevant or interesting to this Maine community as you come together to celebrate and honor a few of your own.

Oh, just to add to my challenge, this is not a college auditorium or a lecture hall. This is a peace supper, not the right venue for a simple recitation of the broad array of depressing and demoralizing statistics with which you are all already too familiar.

So, what I am trying to say is: I did not want to risk winging it. This moment in time contains so much hope and possibility and so much death and destruction. These are not easy times and they are not getting easier -- and so I thought that I would take on some of the myths that burden, complicate and undermine our peace movements.

We have internalized some of these myths pretty deeply. We even reinforce them with one another. So, I thought it might be a valuable exercise to spend some time together dismantling a few of them.

What follows is my high subjective (and certainly incomplete) compilation of the myths of the peace movement.

  • In the 1960s, the peace movement was so much more powerful and so much cooler than we are.
  • There are no young people active in the peace movement. Don't they care?
  • We are marginalized and we are not having an impact.
  • We're not smart enough to oppose the war.
  • All we need to do is get the right person in the White House and then they'll enact our solutions.

Does any of this sound familiar? This is what I hear from brothers and sisters over and over again. Now, these myths are not equal -- some are bigger than others. And some have a kernel of truth (which is why they are myths and not lies) but cumulatively this constant bombardment is a real bummer.

So, I'm saying they are not true -- I'm saying that there are young people, and we are having an impact, and that no one person in any position of power is going to offer any answer automatically or just because they promised they would.

I'm saying we are the ones we have been waiting for, that we are creating the alternative. If that is what we are doing, not just going through some exercise of opposition, some knee-jerk resistance or recalcitrance, then we have a lot of work ahead of us -- and need to take the work more seriously, and ourselves less so.

And that starts with dismantling myths.

Myth One: In the 1960s, the peace movement was so much more powerful and so much cooler than we are today.

I want to start with the 1960s one. 2008 is a big year for revivals and recollections and reunions for the historians and the academics and the activists. 40 years since: the police riot in Chicago, the assassination of Martin Luther King and of Bobby Kennedy, Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the black power salute as they received their Olympic medals, since Catonsville. And those are just a few of the things that happened in the U.S. that year -- around the world there was Prague Spring, the massacre at Tlateloco, the Paris uprising, the Biafran war. Here we are forty years later, and it is a potent moment for reflection.

But, the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer are happening under the slogan "Recreate Sixty-Eight." Disclaimer: Now, I don't mean to undermine or disparage the work of activists and organizers in Denver and all of the friends who will go to Colorado this summer to demonstrate, and at the same time implore the democratic party to be the party of the people.

I like the rhythm of language a lot. And I love alliteration. In that way -- Recreate Sixty Eight is AWESOME. I love how it sounds. The organizers have their reasons for choosing it beyond how cool it sounds. There are a lot of lessons to learn from that era, and a lot of good things that happened that year.

But "recreate sixty-eight"? We cannot and should not recreate sixty-eight. The parallels between today and forty years ago are clear and compelling, and as I said there is a lot to learn from that period.

But here we are in 2008 and we need to be building a movement and building bridges between movements (because we are not a monolith) that is rooted in an analysis and understanding of this moment, this place, this context.

I was struck to read recently that at the beginning of 1968, less than half the American people believed the war in Vietnam was wrong, 45%, and that more than 15,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed and nearly 100,000 wounded. So the Vietnam War was both more bloody and more popular than the war and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are in 2008.

In every way, this nation is less homogeneous than it was 40 years ago: we are racially, ethnically, religiously more diverse and more stratified. We are so much poorer, and so much richer than we were forty years ago. We are less innocent. We are less naíve. In short -- we are different. And this war is different. And so our movements must also be different.

But the media compares '68 and '08, the peace movement then and now. Some activists then and now compare us, some leaders (those who survived) compare that time to now as they seek new relevance.

But, we must not fall sway to this comparison.

We live in the United States of America -- a deeply nostalgic and deeply ahistorical nation saddled with a case of amnesia that approaches pathology. My SAT prep teacher would be so proud of that sentence. This is a dangerous and counterproductive combination -- nostalgic amnesia. And it infects our peace movements. We are tempted to fetishize the past instead of learn from it. The past is constantly being rewritten and repackaged and then sold to us as a distorted reflection in a house of mirrors. So, we don't want to recreate sixty-eight; we want to harness some of that energy, that sense of power and possibility and apply it to our very different context today.

Myth Two: There are no young people active in the peace movement. Don't they care?

And that leads to an interconnected myth: "Where are the young people?" I was at a college in Connecticut a few years ago and I think I was talking about war profiteering. It was a Friday afternoon and one of those early spring, warm days where the flip-flops get dragged out of the back of the closet.

Needless to say, there were not a lot of students there -- but those who were there were active, engaged and very, very earnest. The dialogue was going great until a professor stood up and asked me: "Where are the students? Where are the young people? They don't care. In my day, we were so radical. If there was a draft, man, then they'd know."

"If there was a draft..." It struck me as so spiteful. That would teach 'em. They'd be sorry they never paid attention in my class. I did not hear from him a sense of responsibility as a professor. No understanding of who these young people are he has made it his career to teach. And, no sense of agency, that he could help them do or be anything different.

So, I responded in a few ways: 1) There is a draft -- it is a whole series of backdoor drafts, the people who are fighting these wars don't want to be there and they cannot easily and legally leave -- they are drafted. 2) There will not be another draft -- so hoping that instituting a draft will catalyze a new generation of resistance is a non-starter (as Cheney would say) 3) The draft during the Vietnam war turned out lots of people against the war, but organizing under the banner "bring our boys home" meant that when Nixon "Vietnamized" the war, the mass anti-war movement packed up and went home -- long before the war was over, long before the killing stopped.

It was for many people a movement based on self-interest -- which may be bigger, but is in many ways less powerful than one built on principle and solidarity. The average "lifespan" of a 60s activist was about six months -- from tuning on at their first protest to tuning out and going back to Middle America. You don't end war in six-month increments -- no matter how much you rage during that period. Can we see ourselves today -- in 2008 -- building an anti-war movement founded on the idea that war is a failure of the imagination, that war is wrong, and that it must be resisted and opposed even if it is not affecting one personally? I think we can.

This question -- where are the young people? -- is heart-breaking. It misses all the incredible and courageous work that young people are doing all over this country. It says that young people are not doing peace and justice work because they are not doing it with us.

And it misses the fact that young people today have so much more to lose -- unless they are from very poor or very wealthy backgrounds, young people graduate from college saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no guarantee of a job. That debt is a kind of draft -- college grads are drafted into a life-cycle of taking on more debt, working two jobs, having little time for friendships or community. And all the time the culture whispers: go ahead and buy it --you deserve it -- and a little more debt doesn't matter. But, step out of line, miss one payment, and the house of cards collapses. We need to understand our young people and what they are up against.

But, we are at war and young people are at the forefront -- not just of the college-educated, debt-burdened variety. But urban and rural high school students are finding the new Students for a Democratic Society and creating a new legacy for that 60s-era organization. And there is something else that is missed by that "where are the young people?" question. More and more young people are in uniform. And they are calling cadence of the anti-war movement. And the war is not an abstraction for them: they know what 138-degree heat under Kevlar feels like. They see the lies up close. They have tasted fear and witnessed and participated in war crimes. They are paying the price for this administration's hubris and imperial designs with part of their bodies. They come home haunted and broken and hopping mad.

So, there are young people. And they need support and guidance, not condescension. One of the best things the War Resisters League has done in the last 10 years or so is to sublet space to Iraq Veterans Against the War in New York City. And over coffee and at the copy machine a dialogue between principled pacifists and people who volunteered for military service begins. It is a dialogue that will need to continue for years. It is a dialogue that makes us stronger, and it ensures that the next generation of peace activists will be more powerful and more sophisticated than the last -- understanding the past, but looking and moving forward, never back.

Myth Three: We are marginalized and we are not having an impact.

At the War Resisters League, we have had to relearn the fine art of the press release, because a few years back we realized that not only was the media coming out to our demonstrations, but they were lifting whole sections from our press releases -- warts and all, and we had better write better ones if we wanted better coverage.

We were so used to being marginalized and written off and now there we were on the front page. It took some adjustment. Starting in 2003, just about every demo we've organized has gotten great press coverage. Sometimes the tone is snarky, and reporters always ask why we did not have more people -- but we got covered.


The media landscape is changing fast

Our news team is changing too as we work hard to bring you the news that matters most.

Change is coming. And we've got it covered.

Eventually, I realized we were getting press coverage not just because of our cutting edge, awesome demonstrations. But because we were manifestations of popular sentiment against the war. At a time when the administration is desperately trying to distract the American people from the war and the economy those two things are becoming fused in people's minds, and we are part of triggering, directing and sustaining that discussion. And that discussion turns the wheel of action.

We are still small. But, we speak for the majority of Americans every time we go into the streets. And it leads to this interesting sense of accountability. I am not just here for me. I am here for many people who cannot be here because they are working or they are afraid or they don't know this is happening -- but would be happy if they did.

We are having an impact. So let's use it while we have it. Because it will not always be that way. Whenever I am at a protest and it is all thumbs up and honking horns, I think about World War II, and what it would have been like to be a peace activist then.

Two of the peace activists I most admire -- my mother and father -- both supported the war in their own way. My mom was just a girl then, and talks about collecting cigarette and gum wrappers that they turned in. They were told that the wrappers would be made into ammunition. Everyone was part of the war effort. People planted victory gardens -- and at one point during the war, 40% of people's food came from those gardens, even in urban areas. I am staying at a friend's house and they have a sign from that era that says: "Save waste fats for explosives. Take them to your meat dealer."

My dad served in the Army in WWII. He was a field-decorated lieutenant. My uncles Jerry, Tom and Jim all served in WWII and my Uncle John was in the army, but did not go overseas. Of six brothers, only one -- my Uncle Dan who had already entered the Jesuits -- did not enlist.

People in the U.S. suffered because of WWII. Sacrificed was demanded and expected. Food and gas were rationed and Americans were called on to buy war bonds. At the height of the war, 40% of gross domestic product went to fund war.

Ralph DiGia, Bill Sutherland, the others who refused to serve in the military during World War II had to withstand that propaganda, and I cannot imagine how difficult that was.

So, today we are not opposing a popular total war.

We are resisting a war that barely registers on many peoples' radar screens. But -- when it registers -- the war is profoundly unpopular. The latest polls about the war have more than 70% of Americans opposed to the war, and when the question gets more general -- 80-something percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction this country is going.

But, we risk falling into a moebius strip logic trap: the war is unpopular; people oppose the war, war ends. But, it has not ended. It has ground on for five long years in Iraq, for seven for the long global war on terrorism.

Myth Four: We are not smart enough to end the war.

We have to dismantle the myth that only experts can get us out of Iraq, and unless we can formulate a rock solid plan for withdrawal from Iraq, we cannot really oppose the war.

Why? Why? Why does the war go on if the American people don't want it? There are many answers to this question and I don't have all of them -- but the one I see most often and most clearly is this: even good people who would like there not to be a war don't see a clear way out. And they don't understand the complexities -- you start talking Sunni, Shiite, Awakening, Badr Brigades, Nouri al-Maliki, Sadr City, phased redeployment and you have lost them one, two, three, seven times over. And not seeing a clear way out, and not being completely fluent in the language of deadly quagmire on an epic scale, they tune out.

We have a role and a task here as peace activists and organizers. And our role is not to teach them the grammatical nuances of the language of deadly quagmire on an epic scale.

Our role is to say: you do not need to have a PhD in foreign affairs to say that the war is wrong, to say that withdrawal needs to be immediate and complete, to say that we should not be spending our blood and treasure on wars of preemptive aggression based on lies. In fact, it is the PhDs and the experts, the arm chair warriors who got us into this war.

It takes courage, and moral and political clarity to reject the "pottery barn" maxim of foreign policy -- we broke it, we bought it. No, we need to say: Iraq is not a vase or a candelabra. We need to say to Washington: you broke it. And we did not buy it. And, at the same time acknowledge that we will be paying for Iraq forever -- $3 trillion and counting is the estimate that Stiglitz and Bilmes are using these days.

But we cannot occupy that country forever. The U.S. occupation is a catalyst and cause of violence, not the deterrent. The immediate and complete withdrawal is not a process; it is an executive order.

Myth Five: We can elect our way to an end to war.

But, if we can't stand up for all of that, we fall back on another myth -- the myth that we can express our anti-war sentiments through candidates. That the democratic majority in Congress -- the so-called revolution of 2006 -- or an Obama or Clinton in the White House -- will fulfill our anti-war agenda. The myth is that the right politician will say the right thing at the right time. Those magical incantations will part the quagmire like Moses parted the Red Sea and allow a new administration to do right what Bush did so wrong. It is a myth.

It is a myth. And I am not just saying this because I have found the last two years of campaigning emotionally and physically exhausting. And I'm not even running. Just watching it is irritating at this point.

Politicians will not save us. Democracy is not lever pulling or chad punching. It is not branding and messaging and framing and divining the new micro-interest group. It is not one day every two or four years. And it certainly is not the elaborate and vicarious puppetry spectacle and pageantry of the last eight years. It is hard, sustained, incremental, engaged work.

The name plate on the desk in the Oval Office is a very very small part of what we need to be working for. And yet the election sucks all the oxygen out of the room -- especially this one when there are racial and gender milestones at stake. And it sucks all the money out of the room. And it sharpens the lines that divide us.

And when we cede the answers to some politician, we invest in other people and in other systems what we really need to be investing in ourselves, in one another and in our movements. It puts our hope and our energy in the hands of people with other agendas and other masters.

And that brings me to my stirring conclusion -- it is us. It is you and I. It is Peace Action's platform to Reclaim Maine (a great -- and meaningful -- name). We are the alternative. This room is full of good people who work so hard -- war tax resisters making a principled decision not to pay for war and philanthropists who are generous and dependable, carpenters and green thumbs, computer whizzes and luddites, visionaries and implementers.

We are the alternative. We are the answer. And if you are looking around this room thinking "uh-oh," that's a good thing. Because coming to grip with this truth in the midst of all these myths means we need to be self-critical and challenge each other. It means we should do more -- be more -- reach out more and welcome more in.

We cannot wait. We cannot wait for a leader. We cannot wait for "the plan." We cannot wait for things to get worse. We cannot wait for the answers.

We have the answers, and it is us.

What is the alternative to depression and recession? Sharing.

What is the alternative to subprime mortgages crisis? Collective ownership.

What is the alternative to hunger? Farms and gardens.

What is the alternative to war and terrorism? International cooperation, universally accepted and enforced norms for nation-states, development that meets peoples' needs.

What is the alternative to prison, to soulless schools, to militarized borders? to capitalism and market driven globalization? to cluster bombs?

We answer these questions together and we create the alternatives together. We enact news truths that replace the myths.

Peace Action Maine invited Frida Berrigan, who serves on the board of the War Resisters League and works for the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, to speak at their annual Peace Supper in Portland, Maine.

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