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What Happened to the Global Anti-War Movement?

The world had never seen anything like it, but where did it go?

Protesters display signs as they march to mark the third anniversary of the war in Iraq March 19, 2006 in Portland, Oregon. Thousands participated in the event in Portland as demonstrators in cities across the U.S. called for an end to the conflict and withdrawal of U.S. troops. (Photo: Greg Wahl-Stephens/Getty Images)

Call it strange, but call it something. After all, never in history had there been such active opposition to a war before it began. I’m thinking, of course, about the antiwar surge that, in the winter and early spring of 2003, preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Starting in the autumn of 2002, in fact, the top officials of President George W. Bush’s administration couldn’t have signaled more clearly that such an attack was coming. They had been ready to do so even earlier but, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card so classically put it, “From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.”

In the months that followed, one of those “new products” would turn out to be an antiwar movement. Outraged citizens took to the streets globally by the millions and, in this country, in small towns and large cities in staggering numbers carrying handmade signs saying things like “Contain Saddam—and Bush,” “Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?," and "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?"  It was an unprecedented planetary movement of protest. More than a decade after the Soviet Union imploded, Patrick Tyler of the New York Times even suggested that those demonstrators might represent a second superpower. (“There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”) And then, despite such opposition, the Bush administration launched its mission-accomplished invasion and, though in the years that followed disaster ensued, the marches died away and that antiwar movement seemed to evaporate.


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Ever since, as the U.S. military intervened again and again—from Iraq to Yemen, Libya to Syria—throwing away literally trillions of dollars in the process, bombing, killing, uprooting, destroying, but never actually winning, next to no one would take to the streets in protest, no handmade signs would be made, no attention would seemingly be paid. Washington would continue to fight its endless sinkhole wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, unsettling whole swathes of the planet, with nary a peep at home.

Consider it one of the mysteries of our moment. Congress (until recently) remained supine when it came to those conflicts, while Americans basically looked the other way and went about their business as their tax dollars were squandered on a set of wars from hell. It’s in this context—and that of a president who claimed he would get us out of our forever wars but only seems to keep getting us in further—that former Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, an antiwar activist (as I was) in the Vietnam era, looks back on that distant moment with a strange sense of regret (one that I deeply understand).

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

nation_unmade_by_war.jpgTom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's His sixth and latest book, just published, is A Nation Unmade by War (Dispatch Books).Previous books include: Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (with an introduction by Glenn Greenwald). Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (co-authored with Nick Turse), The United States of Fear, The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's, The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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