According to an email I received today from ImpeachBush.org, approximately a hundred thousand antiwar protesters descended on Washington on Saturday in a mass protest to end the Iraq War. Most likely, the actual number was half this but it is hard to say for sure. While the crowd was undoubtedly large, it did not exactly fill the Mall. In addition, as usual the main targets of their protest were out of town. Bush was likely at Camp David. Cheney was at his usual undisclosed location. Most of Congress had vacated by Thursday anyhow, which is when their weekend usually begins. So the antiwar crowds demonstrated peacefully with largely only police and a small collection of noisy counter protesters to hear them. A few hundred protesters were arrested for sitting of the front lawn of the Capitol. While press articles about the rally were plentiful, they generally appeared well inside the A section. The demonstrators themselves apparently felt a little let down by the lack of a larger turnout.
Where were the Vietnam War era crowds? Yes, there was noise. Yes, there were speeches. Yes, there was Cindy Sheehan and Ramsey Clark at the podium. There were people from International ANSWER who had organized the protest and many mostly preprinted protest signs available for protesters to hoist and wave. Yet somehow, rather than seizing the nation’s attention the event was felt more like a footnote.
I did not to attend. I retrospect I should have, but frankly it dropped off my radar. I probably get a dozen emails like it a day and for some reason this rally did not stand out. From the sound of it, the protest was somewhat smaller than the march I did attend nearly two years ago. Many of the same speakers were at both rallies. Cindy Sheehan, then someone brand new to the protest movement, spoke passionately about the pointless loss of her son Casey in an unwinnable war. Ramsey Clark spoke eloquently about the need for Bush’s impeachment for his war crimes. There was certainly energy in the crowd on that day two years ago. I suspect the same was true during Saturday’s rally. Yet two years later, this and other rallies are not enough. While the tide has turned in the court of public opinion, the war drags on. It continues even though the people who want to end the war now control Congress.
Perhaps that is how these things go. Large antiwar protests during the Vietnam War did not materialize in size until 1968 or so. While I was too young to attend these rallies, I did watch them on the news. By the standards of that era, Saturday’s protest was simply anemic. Perhaps as a consequence today’s protests seem to have less impact.
Why is that? Is it that people are less upset with the Iraq War than the Vietnam War? Is it because the movement still has not developed a full head of steam? Vietnam did not involve troops in any sizeable level until 1963 or so. In that sense today’s antiwar protesters are faster and more agile. They are able to mobilize sizeable crowds much more quickly. Tools that were unavailable back then, like the Internet, no doubt have helped.
Still, the antiwar protests to date have paled in comparison to those of the Vietnam War. It is not as if some Iraq War protests have not come close. A protest shortly before our invasion nearly filled the Mall. Downtown Manhattan was overwhelmed with protesters during one major antiwar protest. These rallies though were the exception rather than the rule. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, campuses were regularly overtaken over by protesters. Protesters barricaded the Pentagon. Workers literally had to step on them to get to work.
The Vietnam War though had a few crucial differences compared with the Iraq War. Draftees largely fought the Vietnam War. This war is being fought entirely by volunteers. Moreover, these recruits come disproportionately from rural and conservative areas. During the years of the Vietnam War, people you knew personally died over there. Mostly people who did not want to serve fought the war.
When only those who choose to fight a war are sent, it is harder to feel the pain. I read in the newspaper of people in my county who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they are rare. I do not know one of them personally. Of the people I encounter regularly, I know of only two who have sons serving in these theaters. Although the more than three thousand American soldiers killed in over four years in Iraq in a sobering number, these numbers are relatively small compared with the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Thankfully, today we are better at saving the lives of the wounded.
While there are exceptions like Cindy Sheehan, most of those who are marching to oppose the war are doing it on ideological grounds, and not because they have been personally affected by the war. While polls show that a majority of Americans want the war to end, feeling this way and actually by taking action to end it are two different things. Because I live near Washington, attending that rally two years was not that big a deal. Had I lived a bit further out I am not sure that my outrage would have been large enough to find the energy to attend.
The downside of fighting a war with volunteers is that you do not necessarily have enough soldiers to fight the war on the scale needed to accomplish the mission. Yet there is an upside. Aside from likely having a better class of soldier, because citizens are less vested in the war it can be harder to stop. When the War on Terror started, President Bush told us not to change our habits. He told us to spend and act as if the terrorists had never hit us. We took his advice to heart. The images of the burning Twin Towers soon faded. The War on Terror become more of an abstraction that a reality. Supporting the troops meant putting stickers on the back of your car and of course not raising your taxes to pay for the war. If you had to pay additional taxes for the war, you might have felt more attached to its outcome. Instead, only the patriotic or desperately poor had to actually put their lives in danger.
This war can be stopped, but it will likely require much more direct engagement from those of us who are against it. Contribute what you can in money. Regularly write your senators, representatives and newspaper editors to let them know how you feel. When they are in your district, take time to attend events where you can question them. Speak to power.
These things, however good, are simply not enough. Take the time to attend antiwar rallies. You need to feel vested in changing the course of the war, and you will not feel that way writing checks to MoveOn.org. Not all of you can make it to the nation’s capital, but there are likely rallies closer to home that you can attend. By attending rallies, not only will you find strength in numbers but also you will find motivation to keep fighting to end the war. You will understand that there is strength in numbers.
Only our politicians can end this war. Politicians will not end it until they believe they must end it or they will be voted out of office. An opportunity to vote them out is about a year away. In the meantime, they can demonstrate right now that they are willing to end the war. There are three ways this can be accomplished. First, Congress can rescind its war authorization. Second, it can pass a bill specifying a date by which all combat troops must be withdrawn from that theater. Or third, it can refuse to fund the war. Any of these actions can be thwarted by a presidential veto. Regardless they demonstrate real commitment from those who can do something about it. Sorry, but passing a bill requiring the president to come up with a plan for withdrawing troops indicates spinelessness, not commitment.
In short, the war will end when we hold accountable those who keep it going. No matter how much you may like your representative or senator here is what you have to tell them: I will vote you out of office unless you end it.