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Tomgram: Ira Chernus, The Peace Movement's War Story

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Who even remembers the moment in mid-February 2003, almost 13 years ago, when millions of people across this country and the planet turned out in an antiwar moment unique in history? It was aimed at stopping a conflict that had yet to begin. Those demonstrators, myself included, were trying to put pressure on the administration of George W. Bush not to do what its top officials so visibly, desperately wanted to do: invade Saddam Hussein's Iraq, garrison it for decades to come, and turn that country into an American gas station. None of us were seers. We didn't fully grasp what that invasion would set off, nor did we imagine a future terror caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but we did know that, if it was launched, some set of disasters was guaranteed; we knew beyond a doubt that this would not end well.

We had an analysis of the disaster to come and you could glimpse it on the handmade signs we carried to those vast demonstrations (some of which I recorded at the time): "Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?"; "Contain Saddam -- and Bush"; "Use our might to persuade, not invade"; "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?"; "Pre-emptive war is terrorism"; "We don't buy it, liberate Florida"; and so on. We felt in our bones that it was no business of Washington's to decide what Iraq should be by force of arms and that American imperial desires in the Greater Middle East were suspect indeed. And we turned out to make that point so impressively that, on the front page of the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler referred to us as the planet's second superpower. ("The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.")

Of course, this vast upsurge of global opposition would prove to be right on the mark, while all the brilliant policymakers and pundits in Washington who beat the drums loudly for war were desperately wrong. And yet the invasion did happen and, in its disastrous wake, we, not they, were wiped out of history. None of us would be consulted when the retrospectives began. No one would want to hear from those who had been right about the invasion (only officials and "experts" who had been dismally wrong). In the process that pre-war movement of ours would essentially be erased from history.

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Mind you, we knew that, whatever we did, George W. Bush was bound and determined to invade Iraq. As I put it that February, "I'm not a total fool. I know -- as I've long been writing in these dispatches -- that this administration is hell-bent for a war. The build-up in the Gulf during these days of demonstrations has been unceasing. I still expect that war to come, and soon. Nonetheless, I find myself amazed by the variegated mass of humanity that turned out yesterday... The world has actually spoken and largely in words of its own. It has issued a warning to our leaders, which, given the history of 'the people' and the countless demonstrations of the people's many (sometimes frightening) powers from 1776 on, is to be ignored at the administration's peril."

On that, unfortunately, I was wrong. We were indeed ignored and it didn't prove to be "at the administration's peril" (not in the normal sense anyway). The large-scale antiwar movement barely made it into the war years. There were a couple of massive demonstrations still to come, but as time went on, as things got worse, as the situation in Iraq devolved and those millions of demonstrators were proven to have been unbearably on the right side of history, the antiwar movement itself essentially disappeared, except for scattered veterans' groups and heroic protesters like the members of Code Pink.

At a time when Americans should have been in the streets saying hell no, we better not go, the Bush administration and then the Obama administration were repeating the same militarized mistakes endlessly, while turning the Greater Middle East into a charnel house of failure. Today, as Pentagon officials prepare for their next set of forays, interventions, drone assassination campaigns, and special ops raids in, among other places, Libya -- and what could possibly go wrong there? -- next to no one is pressuring or opposing them, next to nothing is in their way. As a result, TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus's latest post on what's missing from the missing antiwar movement in America couldn't be more timely. Tom

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America's New Vietnam in the Middle East
A Civil War Story About the Islamic State Might Spark a Peace Movement
By Ira Chernus

It was half a century ago, but I still remember it vividly. "We have to help South Vietnam," I explained. "It's a sovereign nation being invaded by another nation, North Vietnam."

"No, no," my friend protested. "There's just one Vietnam, from north to south, divided artificially. It's a civil war. And we have no business getting involved. We're just making things worse for everyone."

At the time, I hadn't heard anyone describe the Vietnam War that way. Looking back, I see it as my first lesson in a basic truth of political life -- that politics is always a contest between competing narratives. Accept a different story and you're going to see the issue differently, which might leave you open to supporting a very different policy. Those who control the narrative, that is, are likely to control what's done, which is why governments so regularly muster their resources -- call it propaganda or call it something else -- to keep that story in their possession.

Right now, as Americans keep a wary eye on the Islamic State (IS), there are only two competing stories out there about the devolving situation in the Middle East: think of them as the mission-creep and the make-the-desert-glow stories. The Obama administration suggests that we have to "defend" America by gradually ratcheting up our efforts, from air strikes to advisers to special operations raids against the Islamic State. Administration critics, especially the Republican candidates for president, urge us to "defend" ourselves by bombing IS to smithereens, sending in sizeable contingents of American troops, and rapidly upping the military ante. Despite the fact that the Obama administration and Congress continue to dance around the word "war," both versions are obviously war stories. There's no genuine peace story in sight.

To be sure, peace activists have been busy poking holes in the two war narratives. It's not hard. As they point out, U.S. military action against IS is obviously self-defeating. It clearly gives the Islamic State exactly what it wants. For all its fantasies of an apocalyptic final battle with unbelievers, that movement is not in any normal sense either planning to attack the United States or capable of doing so. Its practical, real-world goal is to win over more Muslims to its side everywhere. Few things serve that purpose better than American strikes on Muslims in the Middle East.

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If IS launches occasional attacks in Europe and tries to inspire them here in the U.S., it's mainly to provoke retaliation. It wants to be Washington's constant target, which gives it cachet, elevating its struggle. Every time we take the bait, we hand the Islamic State another victory, helping it grow and launch new "franchises" in other predominantly Muslim nations.

That's a reasonable analysis, which effectively debunks the justifications for more war. It's never enough, however, just to show that the prevailing narrative doesn't fit the facts. If you want to change policy, you need a new story, one that fits the facts far better because it's built on a new premise.

For centuries, scientists found all sorts of flaws in the old notion that the sun revolves around the Earth, but it held sway until Copernicus came up with a brand-new one. The same holds true in politics. What's needed is not just a negative narrative that says, "Here's why your ideas and actions are wrong," but a positive one that fits the facts better. Because it's built on a new premise, it can point to new ways to act in the world, and so rally an effective movement to demand change.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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