Support for the Iraq war has fallen dramatically in the past three years. Since April 2003, the approval rating for Bushs handling of Iraq has gone from 75% to 37%, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. More and more people in the U.S. are concluding that attacking Iraq wasnt worth it (58%) and want the troops brought home (45%).
Yet the growth of the anti-war movement is lagging behind. There are a number of reasons for this apparent contradiction. For one thing, movements generally dont just start out small and keep getting bigger and bigger at each demo.
As in the movement against the Vietnam war, the movement against the Iraq war has had upswings triggered by certain events, which have been followed by relative lulls. In the period following Bushs reelection, many antiwar activists were demoralized and protests were smaller. During that time, the anger against the war was actually growing, but it wasnt visible in the form of large protests.
The following summer, when Cindy Sheehan camped out near Bushs ranch in Texas, the antiwar movement became visible again. Three hundred thousand people demonstrated against the war in Washington, DC on September 24, 2005. As in the past and given the enormous crisis in Iraq we can expect that future events will trigger new waves of protest and struggle.
One reason for the demoralization of the antiwar movement after Bushs reelection was the support by many leaders of the movement for Kerry during the 2004 elections. They refused to call large demos and played down the demand for an immediate end to the occupation in the run-up to the elections, fearing it would embarrass Kerry, who supported the war. This strategy not only failed to defeat Bush, it also weakened the movement and led to a demoralization among many after the election. Today, this mistake is being repeated by many of the leading forces in the movement who are supporting the Democrats in 2006.
Learning from the past
The antiwar movement has already had important successes, like the very fact that public opinion has shifted so dramatically against the war in the past three years. The mood and the protests against the Iraq war have grown much faster than against previous wars like Vietnam. Feeling this pressure, Bush wants to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.
However, the ruling class wont give up the Iraq war easily. A defeat in Iraq, especially following the defeat in Vietnam, would be a historic blow to the power and prestige of U.S. imperialism. The only way theyll be forced by the antiwar movement to bring the troops home is if the political costs at home of continuing the war outweigh the political costs of ending it.
During the Vietnam War, a combination of the massive antiwar movement, soldiers refusing to fight, and the resistance of the Viet Cong made the war unwinnable for the U.S., and provoked a massive political crisis in the U.S. The antiwar movement and other social movements began to fight together with more and more activists concluding that capitalism needed to be overthrown.
Only a mass movement on the streets, schools, in workplaces, and communities that is strong enough to represent a serious threat to the ruling class could compel big business to end the war in order to avoid wider upheavals at home.
The key step the antiwar movement needs to take in this direction is to link the struggle against the war in Iraq with resisting big businesss war on working people here at home. It is the working class, the vast majority of U.S. society, that has the social power to defeat big business and stop the war. In the end, it is working people who make the weapons and fight the war.
The Role of Direct Action
Within the antiwar movement, there has recently been a lot of debate about whether mass protests are effective and if we should instead focus on direct action.
There are different tactics that are helpful in building a mass antiwar movement. Mass protests are important because they help build the movement by bringing people together who are against the war going to a large protest is often the first thing a person will do when they want to fight back, and protests make people feel their collective strength. Mass protests also help lay the basis for more combative actions.
Another tactic is direct action. When well-planned and linked to a strategy to build a mass movement, civil disobedience – such as mass student walkouts, sit-ins in the offices of Congresspersons and recruitment stations, confronting military recruiters in schools, surrounding them and making it impossible for them to recruit – can be a good way to build the movement. Direct action can get media attention, help ordinary people feel the power of the movement, and can make it more difficult for the war machine to work.
While civil disobedience can be a useful tactic in many circumstances, it needs to be done in a way that helps bring new layers of workers and youth into the movement and helps raise consciousness and the confidence to struggle. A handful of courageous, self-sacrificing individuals are not enough to stop the U.S. military machine. This requires a mass movement.
If direct actions arent well-prepared or seen as a part of a strategy to involve more people in the movement and to sink roots in communities, they can throw the movement back. When done on a small scale and especially if they lead to many arrests, there is a high risk of contributing to the isolation of antiwar activists from the rest of society.
The mainstream media will seize on small direct actions to portray activists as criminals in order to drive a wedge between the working class and antiwar layers. This can cut activists off from the rest of the working class who dont see a role for themselves in these kinds of actions.
Neither mass protests, nor direct action alone will be able stop the war. Both need to be seen as tools to build the strongest possible mass movement to force the government to bring the troops home.