from the pages of ../


 

After The "Turkey Shoot"

Michael Albert

 

Antiwar activists weren't cluster bombed or physically beaten. But we are depressed, and with ample reason.

A New York Times photo showed thousands of cars burned on the road from Kuwait to Basra. The caption read "Vehicles caught in bombing while retreating." In this picture diligent readers could see the charred, mangled, unmentioned corpses only with the aid of a powerful magnifying glass, but bombardiers had a better view. In a Washington Post interview a pilot complained that the Air Force was unable to reload cluster bombs fast enough to kill all the retreating "targets." Tie a yellow ribbon for that pilot, please.

For military wisdom, the Boston Globe quotes an officer surveying charred teenage bodies at ground level. The soldier is chagrined, but comfortingly deduces that for the U.S. to have had so few casualties and the Iraqis so many there must have been "divine intervention" on the side of "good versus evil." He never considers the slightly more plausible conclusion that this "war" was one of the most wanton, cowardly massacres in modern military history. Will the troops now busy bulldozing bodies into mass graves tell all after returning to the "mother of all fatherlands," or will ticker-tape parades replace honesty as therapy? Tie another yellow ribbon, please. Perhaps the U.S. construction giant, Bechtel, ought to paint a big yellow sign in the rubble, "The Real Great Satan Was At Work Here."

It is little comfort that fewer U.S. troops died of war-inflicted wounds than might have died in street violence had they all spent the same six months living in a ghetto in any major U.S. city. Over 40 Iraqi divisions decimated, the entire infrastructure of Iraq destroyed, much of Kuwait bombed to dust, ecological chaos, and about 100 "allied" battlefield casualties. As cleanup (mostly body removal) reveals that Iraq had no battlefield-available chemical weapons, no massive impenetrable fortifications, and few fortifications of any kind at all, could it be any clearer that the entire media discussion of Iraq's "military might" was a disgusting charade to fool the American public? Should the world try Hussein for war crimes? Sure, along with Bush, Baker, and the CEOs of CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

Rampant flag-waving patriotism—derived from intense alienation turned to collective euphoria over winning—was sustained more by ignorance than malevolence. But this offers little solace for movement activists whose main responsibility is uncovering truth and raising consciousness.

Yes, a post-war poll showed that less than a third of respondents were aware that Israel was occupying land in the Middle East, that only 3 percent were aware of Syria's occupation of Lebanon, that just 15 percent could identify the Intifada, and only 14 percent knew that the U.S. had been almost alone in the UN in rejecting a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and that, in contrast, 81 percent knew all about the Patriot missile and 80 percent knew Saddam Hussein had gassed the Kurds.

Yes, before the war 75 percent of the U.S. public favored negotiations. And yes, if everyone had known that the hypothetical negotiation scenario proposed by pollers was actually what Saddam Hussein was repeatedly asking for, 99 percent would have favored peace.

So, yes, the public wasn't consciously for barbarism. Instead, in a corrupt, uncaring, and decaying society, once the leadership chose barbarism, people wanted so badly for their country to be on the side of right that they didn't assess whether their morals were consistent with U.S. policy. But this lack of conscious malevolence is no reason to exult. After all, similar ignorance and mob psychology sustained the nazification of Germany.

U.S. elites went to war (1) to control Middle East oil as an international economic lever; (2) to ensure that Middle East oil profits prop up our banks and now our construction industry ("we destroyed the country to rebuild it"); and (3) to establish that we are a gun for hire which will mercilessly repress any Third World country trying to establish the slightest control over their own destiny, regardless of whether they undertake these actions from a right-wing or left-wing stance. Bush has traveled far toward implementing this vision and that is truly depressing.

But, still deeper, I think many activists are wondering, why am I doing what I do? Why am I radical, dissident, pacifist, feminist, anti-racist, green, gay rights, anti-capitalist? Why do I uncover every disgusting nook and cranny of oppression and brutality instead of doing what gives me most pleasure? Is this sensible? Is it hopeful? Doesn't some of the rampant depression now sweeping activist communities stem from a fear that winning is impossible and we may be wasting our lives?

I don't think people who feel this way will be dissuaded by calls urging, "Don't mourn, organize." We did organize. And it galvanized tremendous opposition. And it wasn't enough.

 

Could We Have Done More?

In any complex undertaking it is always possible things could have been done better. Instead of having two coalitions confusing people and dividing resources, we could have had one that was clear, principled, and eloquent. More of the opposition could have avoided accepting turf defined by the administration and media—"do we or don't we support the troops?"—and focused on the fact that U.S. Gulf policy was criminal and the war unjust. Everyone could have worked just a little harder, demonstrations could have been a little better planned, speakers a little better prepared, and leadership a little more willing to incorporate new ideas and energies.

But, given the outpouring of antiwar activity across the country, these criticisms are minor. The truth is, given our starting point on August 2, our antiwar effort was about as good as we could have hoped for. As a curb on war-making, episodic organizing is dead.

Crises come and go. During crises attention is aroused, energies grow, and activism naturally increases. By saying "episodic organizing is dead," I don't mean future crises won't spur increased activism. And I don't mean that the logic of raising the social cost of hated policies by education, demonstrations, and disobedience is mistaken. Nor do I mean that it's bad for people who were previously uninvolved to be roused for the first time to undertake critical initiatives during a crisis. But if there is not an ongoing infrastructure of grassroots and national movement institutions, the growth in energy that occurs with the onset of each new crisis will never be well captured, long retained, nor curb each new crisis before it explodes. Therefore, building a lasting, systemically-focused movement must become priority number one for long-term activists.

The U.S. state and its agencies have learned the lessons of struggle taught by the 1960s and have modified their behavior and that of the media accordingly. That transformation, coupled with the exit of the Soviets as a serious international force, has left a new organizing context. When war threatens, if antiwar movements organize from scratch, then by the time they attain an organizational capability to begin to wipe away media/government lies and confusions, the war is over. Media madness drowns out antiwar arguments until ticker-tape victory parades crowd antiwar demonstrations off the streets.

But what if instead we had started opposition on August 2 not from scratch but with well-established capabilities? Imagine, for example, as one of many lost past possibilities, that Jesse Jackson's Rainbow campaigns over the past decade had been primarily movement-building efforts with an electoral component as just one aspect. Imagine that, as many urged at the time, when Jackson and the Rainbow apparatus traveled all over the nation their chief priority was to help establish grass-roots organizations, provide resources and skills, and build local structures that could later fight for local agendas.

Imagine also that after the elections, instead of gutting what could have been a community-based, institutionally sound, multi-issue, multi-tactic Rainbow in favor of a narrowly defined, electoral machine, the Rainbow leadership had further democratized the Rainbow, developed new chapters, and steadily improved their means of national communication and education.

Suppose also that over the same years we had done more to develop alternative media, applying more resources to the most economical and effective approaches at our disposal. And suppose, too, that in the 1980s we had reached the obvious conclusion that we needed both the "autonomy" of movements and organizations clearly focused around particular oppressions—racism, battering, AIDS, housing, income distribution, foreign policy, schools, health care, conversion, etc.—and also an overarching alliance of all these in which a regular exchange of views and material aid and energies was natural. And suppose we achieved a considerable degree of this "autonomy coupled with solidarity" through the Rainbow or some other union of all these movements.

Finally, suppose that after the Vietnam War (the contra war, Grenada, Panama, etc.), instead of moving on to other crises and leaving the field clear for mainstreamers to define the history and meaning of our past experience, we had done a better job of educating the public about exactly what had occurred and why, better preparing people to understand future events not as aberrations or errors, but as logical outgrowths of elite-serving national policy.

In this scenario, on August 2, there would have been thousands of local peace and justice groups, all with well-developed organizing skills, ties to their communities, and ties to one another. There would also have been a representative organization to coordinate their crisis efforts, disseminate written resources for grassroots organizing, provide speakers for teach-ins, set dates for demonstrations, and even raise money to help sustain local work.

And there would have been many more independent radio stations as well as far more visible radical print media able to provide mutual support, analysis, and aid.

Even if there weren't yet workplace, neighborhood, and union branches of this peace and justice movement, which would certainly be a necessary step on the way to lasting structural transformation, this level of activist infrastructure, political sophistication, and mutual support, would have been enough to allow a movement around the Gulf crisis beginning its work on August 2 to force a negotiated rather than a military settlement.

Moreover, since less than all this won't do, whether you see yourself as a revolutionary out to replace patriarchy with feminism, racism with intercommunalism, authoritarianism with democracy, and capitalism with participatory economics, or as a reformer intent only on attaining more justice within the system, you have a clear agenda. Yes, the revolutionary has to provide long-term vision while the reformer doesn't. But for short-term aims, both need to build a multi-focus, multi-constituency, grass roots-based, nationally organized, institutionally strong opposition. Avoiding this to deal only with crises never made much sense. Now, to avoid it makes no sense at all.

There are two reasons to be radical, green, pacifist, feminist, gay rights advocate, antiracist, and/or anti-capitalist. (1) Because it is right. (2) Because it is right and can succeed. The first reason can sustain a relatively small movement undertaking endless episodic organizing that rarely if ever wins anything. The second reason can sustain a powerful movement that educates the public and organizes lasting institutions and thereby wins reform after reform on the road to a transformed society. To begin to make the second reason real and thereby turn back the current tide of depression, those who have the energy and endurance to accept the challenge must make the above hypothetical scenario a future reality.