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Plan B for the Peace Movement

Persistent protesters need to prepare for some unsettling possibilities

Paul Loeb and Geov Parrish

Thousands took to the streets of Chicago on Thursday.
Although millions have marched worldwide, Bush’s war on Iraq is underway. But the peace movement is working not only to stop this war, but to lay the groundwork to prevent it from leading to future wars in Iran, North Korea, Colombia or wherever else the Bush administration sees a “target of opportunity.” This means we’ll need those now surging into the peace movement to stick around for the long haul, and not melt away when times get hard.

During the first Gulf War, one arguably more justified, the U.S. peace movement got kicked in the gut. Then too, major protests surged through American and European cities, hoping to stop the war before it started. But once the war began, mainstream American debate over the wisdom of war was quickly supplanted by the insistence that anything other than relentless cheerleading was disloyal to the troops and the country. Americans overwhelmingly supported the first Gulf War because it succeeded militarily, and because the more than hundred thousand Iraqis who died were faceless and anonymous.

Those who continued speaking out for peace quickly found themselves marginalized, isolated and silenced. Most quickly retreated, many entering a political cocoon they would stay in for years. Yet for some who’ve been active working for justice and peace ever since, that war was their entry point to involvement.

What made the difference between the people who retreated and those who stayed engaged? What will make the difference now that many more ordinary citizens are outraged enough to speak out—opposing both the war and Bush’s broader assault on democracy?

Those who persisted back then promptly learned that their actions could matter whether or not they produced immediate results. Connecting with fellow activists, they saw themselves as part of a long-term movement for change—fighting for basic principles. They retained hope and courage even when the political tides seemed to run against them.

The peace movement needs to be prepared for some unsettling possibilities. If the war appears to go well militarily, Americans are likely to rally behind Bush. The mainstream U.S. media will largely avoid covering civilian deaths, but those casualties will be highly visible to the Islamic world. Muslims worldwide will hear of the dead and wounded, the fleeing refugees, the destruction of homes, power stations and sewage plants. Attacking Iraq will create further enemies.

An uglier immediate scenario is also possible: that the attack on Baghdad, and the crackdown on Palestinians that Israel is likely to launch at the same time, will trigger counterattacks on American and allied targets throughout the world and on U.S. soil. Islamic terror groups have been planning for this invasion at least as long as the Pentagon.

If terrorist bombs go off in Chicago, Des Moines or Philadelphia, America will no longer simply be conducting an invisible war in a faraway land. We will be at war with an enemy that fights back here at home. Most citizens would be likely to feel overwhelmed with anger and fear. Just as after 9/11, they’ll hardly be receptive to the difficult truth that America’s own actions will have helped set those terrible events in motion. It will be hard to resist the administration’s permanent evisceration of due process, massive increases in military spending and further interventions. If unprepared, the peace movement risks being isolated and obliterated.

The anti-war movement needs a Plan B; it needs a plan for getting that message out to the public despite all the media cheerleading; and it needs a strategy for not only retaining its current massive numbers, but expanding them to the point where we can reverse government policy.


We might begin by connecting the waves of new participants just beginning to speak out with communities of longtime activists. There’s nothing more demoralizing than staying home in isolation, watching Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld on TV. If we’re connected with enough sympathetic people, we can support each other, pass on alternative perspectives, and talk about all the issues that will remain when the 24-hour news coverage ends.

Marches and rallies have grown, in nearly every city in the country, to create carnivals of homemade signs, stilt-walkers, puppets, belly-dancers, marching bands, grandmothers, ministers, punks and all manner of ordinary citizens. But they’ve also missed opportunities. Speakers have talked little about what it means to work in an ongoing way to address the root causes of the crises we now face. Our marches and rallies have also done far too little to connect the tide of new participants to concrete networks that could support their involvement. Most opponents of war aren’t connected with organized institutions. When the propaganda barrage escalates into a full-scale blitz, those just beginning to act will find it particularly hard to resist isolation.

If we can link even a fraction of those just coming in to each other and to existing communities of concern, far more will persist when the going gets tough. We’ll need visions sufficiently compelling to help participants new and old keep going no matter what happens. We need to raise these visions to all just beginning to express their concerns, including those who backed Bush’s war in Afghanistan, served in other wars, or even consider themselves honorable Republicans.

Given how continually Bush plays the fear card, we might acknowledge that Americans have some reasons for fear. And then make clear that reckless zealotry and a willingness to make entire populations expendable does nothing to bring real security. The Bush administration has already handed a wealth of arguments to Islamic terrorist groups worldwide.

These terrorists wear no uniform and answer to no country. As such, their efforts can ultimately be prevented, not by war, but by a combination of police work and persuasion—ensuring that such tactics are embraced by dozens, not millions, and then working to render those dozens as ineffectual as possible. We need to be clear that those who’ve rushed to war, not those of us who oppose it, are the real betrayers of trust and security.

If Saddam’s armies fold quickly, we’ll need to mount a greater challenge to the apostles of empire, who insist that because our armies dwarf those of every other nation, we have the right to impose our will however we choose. We need to reject the entire doctrine of “pre-emptive” invasions, a doctrine that explicitly threatens every nation on earth (with the diplomatic isolation, arms races and security nightmares that naturally follow). We need to resist scenarios where the U.S. turns military victory into regional economic and political dominance.


We also need long-term perspective in our own organizing, for the perseverance that creates real change. Rosa Parks didn’t just step onto a bus in Montgomery, but had been an NAACP activist for a dozen years, part of a supportive community that taught people to persist despite every setback. Because we can’t foresee every twist and turn, we need to view our involvement as a long-term process. If we give up simply because things get difficult, we create self-fulfilling prophecies of despair.

Our actions have impacts in ways we can rarely foresee. We need to remember this even when our efforts appear utterly futile, when we seem to be rolling the proverbial rock up a hill only to watch it roll back again and again. We may never know when our actions are mattering most. The heads of the Eastern European police states insisted their hold on power was secure until almost the moment the Berlin Wall came down. So did the white rulers of South Africa, almost until the moment Nelson Mandela was freed.

During Vietnam, Richard Nixon seriously considered using nuclear weapons and at one point threatened to drop the bomb—then backed down in the face of the nationwide demonstrations and a huge march in Washington. Publicly, Nixon declared that the marchers weren’t affecting his policies in the slightest. Yet privately, Nixon decided the movement had so “polarized” American opinion that he couldn’t carry out his threat. Participants had no idea their efforts helped stopped a nuclear attack.

Whatever the impact of our protests on an administration drunk on its own power, they show the rest of the world that vast numbers of ordinary Americans disagree. Global protests already handed the White House major setbacks at the United Nations. If enough ordinary citizens here at home have the courage to keep on saying “no” to reckless military action, there’s no telling what we can stop. Only by persisting do we have a chance to break the cycles of endless enemies, retaliations and deaths of ordinary people caught in the crossfire.

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