Call it strange, but call it something. After all, never in history had there been such active opposition to a war before it began. I'm thinking, of course, about the antiwar surge that, in the winter and early spring of 2003, preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Starting in the autumn of 2002, in fact, the top officials of President George W. Bush's administration couldn't have signaled more clearly that such an attack was coming. They had been ready to do so even earlier but, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card so classically put it, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."
In the months that followed, one of those "new products" would turn out to be an antiwar movement. Outraged citizens took to the streets globally by the millions and, in this country, in small towns and large cities in staggering numbers carrying handmade signs saying things like "Contain Saddam -- and Bush," "Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?," and "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?" It was an unprecedented planetary movement of protest. More than a decade after the Soviet Union imploded, Patrick Tyler of the New York Times even suggested that those demonstrators might represent a second superpower. ("There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.") And then, despite such opposition, the Bush administration launched its mission-accomplished invasion and, though in the years that followed disaster ensued, the marches died away and that antiwar movement seemed to evaporate. Ever since, as the U.S. military intervened again and again -- from Iraq to Yemen, Libya to Syria -- throwing away literally trillions of dollars in the process, bombing, killing, uprooting, destroying, but never actually winning, next to no one would take to the streets in protest, no handmade signs would be made, no attention would seemingly be paid. Washington would continue to fight its endless sinkhole wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, unsettling whole swathes of the planet, with nary a peep at home.
Consider it one of the mysteries of our moment. Congress (until recently) remained supine when it came to those conflicts, while Americans basically looked the other way and went about their business as their tax dollars were squandered on a set of wars from hell. It's in this context -- and that of a president who claimed he would get us out of our forever wars but only seems to keep getting us in further -- that TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, an antiwar activist (as I was) in the Vietnam era, looks back on that distant moment with a strange sense of regret (one that I deeply understand). Tom
My Pentagon Regret
As the U.S. Rattles Its Sabers at Tehran, Echoes of Sabers Past
By James Carroll
Earlier this month, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group -- the massive aircraft carrier itself with its dozens of warplanes and thousands of sailors and marines, a guided missile cruiser, and four destroyers -- suddenly began to make its way from the Mediterranean Sea into the Persian Gulf, heading for the waters off Iran. Pentagon sources spoke of ominous but unspecified threats. The U.S. military moved into a showy state of readiness, with reports that a force of up to 120,000 troops might be mobilized and sent to the Middle East for a possible future war with Iran.
In the Trump era, such American saber rattling, especially by hyper-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, feels so unnervingly routine that it might not have even made me sit up. Then I read that the latest Middle East deployment included a task force of -- god save us from memory! -- B-52s, the massive strategic bombers dating from the 1950s that wreaked such havoc in the first great war of my adulthood: Vietnam.- Advertisement -
Even as that now-ancient national trauma popped back into my mind, I chastised myself. Not every provocative U.S. naval deployment in sketchy waters off some distant coast is a set-up for a replay of the Gulf of Tonkin, that war-igniting North Vietnamese "attack" on U.S. destroyers that never was. I reminded myself as well that just because Bolton is sounding the alarm doesn't mean his counterparts in Tehran are harmless or that Donald Trump, who years ago warned against a president launching an attack on Iran to win a future election, would be willing to go there. Why, oh why, I kept asking myself, won't that antiwar trick knee of mine stop jerking?
The Ghost Bomber Flies Again, or 12 Drummers Drumming
But B-52s? I just couldn't get them out of my mind. How could those aged monsters with their massive swept-wings, eight pylon-mounted engines, and 70,000-pound payloads of bombs still be flying?
B-52s were brought into service in the 1950s as the emissaries of an orgasmic, potentially civilization-destroying nuclear assault against hundreds of cities in the Soviet Union and communist China. Thank god, it never came to that, but then the B-52 was reconfigured as the ultimate instrument of carpet-bombing in Vietnam, leveling vast numbers of mile-square "target boxes" across that land. Its crowning performance, however, didn't come until near that war's end: the "Christmas bombing" of 1972. From December 13th to December 29th, over the mythic 12 days of Christmas, like so many drummers drumming, wave after wave of those strategic bombers were sent against previously off-limit targets in and around the North Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. It would prove to be the biggest heavy bomber assault since World War II.
Then an antiwar activist and a priest, I was among those who, as soon as we heard about the bombing campaign, assumed our country was engaged in a war crime of the first order -- a modern Guernica, as the French newspaper Le Monde put it. Events would prove us right and, yes, the B-52 has haunted me ever since. That's why the news of its latest provocative deployment against Iran takes me back across the years to a set of as-yet-unreckoned-with mistakes -- ones that are distinctly the property of the Pentagon, but also, given the U.S. wars that followed, the American people. That's why, as recent events began to unfold, I found myself returning to what I still consider my own mistake rooted in the absurdity of that distant moment almost half a century ago, one that I suddenly felt a need to revisit.
The 12 Days of Christmas- Advertisement -
The story begins with that Christmas bombing. Here's my best recollection of what happened. Less than two months before it began, just ahead of the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, announced that, when it came to the Vietnam War, "peace is at hand." In that way, he gave his president, if not a partridge in a pear tree, then at least the means to smother Democratic antiwar presidential candidate George McGovern that November. And a Washington-Hanoi peace accord had indeed been agreed to in Paris in October only to break down in December. At that time, the reelected president ordered the most savage bombing campaign of an already savage war, dispatching more than 100 B-52s to drop high explosives on, among so much else, the Bach Mai Hospital in the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. Once again, civilians were being killed by American flyers.
At that point in the war, as a member of the Catholic wing of the peace movement, I had been an organizer of numerous antiwar demonstrations and a participant in a handful of civil disobedience "actions," but something in me snapped on first hearing news of that barbarous burst of yuletide violence. I experienced a jolting urge to escalate myself and immediately thought of a good friend in Washington, another Catholic antiwar organizer and priest, as firmly committed to nonviolence as I was but less in the grip of timidity. He, too, was enraged by the Christmas bombing. "Let's do something about it ," he said.
The week before Christmas, I travelled from Boston to Washington to join him in shaping a response. By the time I got there, he had already gathered a few other activists, most of whom I knew. I trusted them. We were all old hands at antiwar protests (with small-potato arrest records to show for it). None of us, however, had engaged in the serious kinds of law breaking that had sent other Catholic pacifist-protesters off for significant prison terms. Yet all of us were appalled by the ongoing Christmas bombing, which, for us, felt like a new kind of draft notice.