Where have all the flowers gone
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone
Young girls picked them everyone
When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn
This popular rhyme from the 1960s penned by the legendary Pete Seeger may have a hauntingly familiar melody and spirit for many in the peace and antiwar movement. Within a few lines where flowers and young girls, young men and graveyards are conveniently interspersed, the song captured both the heart ache and the hope for change felt by millions of people yearning for a break from the Vietnam war. And throw in the antiwar protesters protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the footsteps of those protesting Vietnam and Indochina, and one can be forgiven for wondering when, if ever, will they ever learn.
To understand why the anti war movement, in its most conspicuous of manifestations may well be a dying breed, one need not look any further than a few hard statistics on the number of people protesting. The first major antiwar rally outside the heart of power in Washington, on the National Mall was held two months prior to the invasion of Iraq, on January 16’th 2003. According to the respected online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the organizers of the first major march in Washington estimated the rally attracted some 200,000 protesters during the run up to the invasion, while a similar rally in San Francisco attracted anywhere between 150,000 to 200,000 protesters.
The culmination of the antiwar efforts came scarcely a month later, on February 15. On what was described by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest protest in human history, between six and ten million protesters took to the streets of some 800 cities in nearly sixty countries across the globe. The weekend of the 15’th and 16’th of February was, by all accounts, towering days in history when galvanizing world public opinion against the impending Iraq war manifested itself as people power on a scale and magnitude never seen before, possibly even during the Vietnam War era. The staggering level and depth of opposition to the war in Iraq was as much a testament to the skills and verve of the global antiwar movement as it was a reflection of deep seated worldwide opposition to the military plans of the Bush administration. New York Times writer Patrick Tyler had it right when he said the massive protests worldwide proved there were ''two superpowers on the planet – the United States, and worldwide public opinion’’.
The six years since the Iraq invasion have seen any number of things change, governments come and go, as well as a humanitarian and social crisis in Iraq precipitated in the aftermath of the invasion. Before the eyes of the world that protested the war vigorously, Iraq was invaded, its government overthrown, its dictator executed, its social fabric shredded by seemingly relentless sectarian strife, close to two million of its people internally and externally displaced, and, worst of all, up to a million Iraqis losing their lives in the ensuing mayhem. It has also witnessed eroding popular support for the Iraq war in the United States. For instance, a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in March 2003 showed some three quarters of Americans supported US military action against Iraq. By contrast, in December 2008, an ABC News/Washington Post poll interviewing about a thousand US adults nationwide indicated a significant majority – 64 percent - believed the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. The result of six years of chaos, widespread violence, declining American prestige, and perhaps most significant of all, the failure to account for Saddam Hussein’s much dreaded Weapons of Mass Destruction seems have led to a dramatic sea change in American public opinion towards the US led invasion. The election in 2008 of Barack Obama, who opposed the invasion from the very onset, the political risks associated with such a position during the run up to the war notwithstanding, seemed to personify this antiwar sentiment. By stark contrast, the precipitous decline in fortunes of President Bush’s Republican party, and the defeat of its Presidential contender, war veteran John McCain, seemed to represent a blow as much to the gun ho military action of the Republican Party as it did to the neoconservative ideology of its intellectual elite. Most Europeans, Asians and Middle Easterners were dead set against the Iraq invasion, and in many cases were willing and determined to protest against it from day one. More Americans, it seems, have since followed suit.
In an environment where the moral and intellectual reasoning of the Iraq war seems to have largely become discredited in the eyes of US and global public opinion, the antiwar movement may benefit from reflecting on why this negative sentiment toward the Iraq foray has not led to an invigoration of the anti war movement. The ultimately discomforting paradox during the six years since the invasion, at least from the vantage point of the anti war movement, is that the more public opinion across the world turns against the Iraq war, the fewer the number of people willing to take to the streets to oppose it and call for an end to the occupation. On the sixth anniversary of the invasion, on March 2009, for instance, the number of people protesting on the footsteps of Capitol Hill measured a modest 10,000 – a far cry not just from the enormity of the prewar masses, but also from the 500,000 who chose to show up as recently as January 2007 at a Washington antiwar rally sponsored by United for Peace and Justice.
How does one account for this disturbing paradox? At a recent Washington protest against the continuing siege of Gaza, I asked an elderly protester what she thought of the declining numbers. ''Protest fatigue’’ – protest fatigue, catchy term coined by at least one antiwar campaigner. In other words, people getting sick and tired of protesting, gathering in the streets, waving placards, and shouting antiwar slogans. For at least some people, though, the whole experience of protesting and rallying can be an inherently exuberant and empowering one – standing shoulder to shoulder with any number of men, women and children – united in the pursuit of a single goal can be one of the most thrilling things one can be involved in, as any anti war protester can attest.
There may be another less comforting explanation; one psychologists refer to as learned helplessness. In an environment of relentless subjugation, people learn to be passive and train themselves to be helpless, even when opportunities exist for them to extricate themselves from pain and suffering. In other words, at least some anti protesters, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the suffering, death and destruction wrought on Iraqis and Allied forces alike, genuinely believe there is nothing they can do in their capacity as activists, nothing that can be done by ordinary people to end the war, so protesting in their minds is deemed ultimately futile. Observers have pointed out that in the run up to the Iraq war, opposition and despair at the prospect of the US invasion was most marked in the Middle East. And yet, anti war protests comparable to those in the Western world were conspicuous by their near absence on the Arab street. One could easily create parallels between the American anti war protesters who feel protesting achieves nothing, and millions of Middle Easterners wary yet passive towards the excesses and injustices of US foreign policy with respect to their part of the world – parallels that transcend radical differences not only in culture and identity but also in ideology and worldview.
Why are the legions of antiwar activists growing smaller and smaller? Where have all the protesters gone? What explains their disappearance from the world’s cameras? Apathy? Vindication of their opposition to the war? Learned helplessness? Or is it hope, confidence, and a belief in the ability of human perseverance to end all wars?
Whatever the amalgam of factors that account for the smaller crowds opposing the Iraq war, whatever the success of the antiwar movement in building itself up from a scratch and mobilizing millions for peace in a remarkably short time, the movement will have to go through at least some element of introspection. The ultimate danger facing the antiwar movement is not just that it may disappear off the radar screen of the world’s headlines, but also that as worldwide public opinion, the touted second superpower becomes increasingly relevant, those advocating peace and justice may simply become irrelevant to the world’s policymakers and opinion makers alike.