This week, at hundreds of events across the country, tens of thousands of people will mark the fifth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq and demand an end to the occupation and the withdrawal of all US troops. They will march, vigil, sit-in, teach-in, write letters, call their Congressman, block recruiting offices, sing songs, wear orange, call in sick, buy Citgo (Venezuelan) gas, all in an effort to get the nation's political leadership to take notice of the 70% of the American people who think this war has destroyed too many lives, done too much damage to our own country as well as Iraq, cost far too much, and gone on way too long.
Washington, D.C., will be the focus of much of the activity. A "Stop-Loss Congress" campaign starting March 10 is delivering stop-loss notices to Congressional offices, cancelling their planned March 15 vacation until all US troops are brought home from Iraq. March 13 will see the beginning of four days of "Winter Soldier" hearings sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War, focusing on the horrific toll the war is taking on even the soldiers lucky enough to return from their tours of duty alive and uninjured. March 19, the actual anniversary of the invasion, will be a day of nonviolent civil resistance in all 435 Congressional districts, although perhaps tellingly, events in the Capitol will focus on the offices of war profiteers rather than vacationing Congressmen. Organizers apparently don't expect the "stop-loss" campaign to succeed.
I encourage everyone who opposes the war to participate in these events. I'll be at every one I can get to, as I have for the last five years. It's good for my soul. But frankly, I don't expect these events to be any more successful than those earlier ones were, and it seems our numbers dwindle even as the percentage of people against the war grows. Indeed, before the war began, millions of people around the world hit the streets in protest. The reaction -- "a focus group," President Bush said.
I remember back in 1981 attending a huge "Solidarity Day" march in Washington, when every significant labor union and activist groups from the NAACP to Greenpeace to the Democratic Socialists of America -- some 250,000 people, far larger than Martin Luther King's March on Washington or anything from the Vietnam era -- converged to protest the direction the Reagan administration was taking America. The result -- seven more years of union-busting, poor-bashing, environment-trashing, and dirty wars around the world.
Marches and other, highly-visible forms of civil disobedience have their place. They lift our spirits and let us know we're not alone. They can bring attention to an issue. And, if persistent enough, they may eventually convince the powers-that-be that their misguided, destructive policies simply aren't worth the hassle, and they should find other ways to make money. But a march requires truly impressive numbers to get much attention, and the trends haven't been going in our favor. And $4 gas isn't going to make it any easier -- maybe that was part of the plan. In any case, scattered, sporadic, one-shot efforts have little chance to make an impact. They know that soon we'll all have to go home and get back to our lives, and they can easily wait us out.
But there is an approach that asks of people something so easy, effortless, and free of personal risk that you just might get the participation of the millions necessary to really end this war. And at the same time, it speaks in the language that power understands, and in a way it can't ignore.
Remember 9/11? Lines to give blood wrapped around the block, and the entire country stood at the ready for marching orders, practically pleading for meaningful ways to sacrifice for the common good. And how did our president respond? "Go shopping."
Well, times have changed -- boy, have they. So if Bush's way of having us help him fight his war was to go shopping, I say the way to end it is just as simple -- stop shopping.
For all the talk about how the United States has been transformed into a corporatocracy, we make a mistake when we view it monolithically. It's true that Halliburton and Exxon/Mobil have made mind-boggling amounts of money off this war. But every dollar you spend putting a tiger in your tank is a dollar you can't spend at the mall, so Sears, Roebuck -- not so much. But you're not likely to hear them speak out. It might cause problems at the club. It might scotch an invitation to join a corporate board, those interlocking mutual admiration societies devoted mainly to padding each other's bank accounts at shareholders' expense -- the easiest money imaginable. After all, if a moral compass or nonconformity was part of their DNA, they would have chosen a different career path. Just look at how they dress. They need our encouragement. They need our help. They need to feel our pain.
So I propose an economic boycott to stop the war and bring the troops home. Not a boycott of any particular war profiteer -- a boycott of everything. One Day to End the War. On the last day of the month (just because that would be easy to remember), if you want the war to end, you don't spend a dime on anything, nothing, nada, zero, zilch. And you keep doing that every month until it's enacted into law -- veto overriden if necessary -- that every last soldier be out of Iraq within one year.
If every one of the 70% of the American public -- more than 200 million people -- that opposes the war were to simply remove their participation from the economy for even a day, do you think that would not have an impact? If every Home Depot and Starbucks, every fast food joint, department store, gas station, and movie theater in the country were to see their sales drop by 70% one day, do you think you would not be heard?
Of course, that's not going to happen. To reach that level of participation would require a massive public education campaign. Liberal blogs and talk radio could surely be brought on board, but those of us involved in those things tend to overestimate their reach (ask Ron Paul). And you could expect no help from free media -- their advertisers would scream. So you probably need paid media (and even then, paid media might be denied too on the grounds of "controversial advertising." Not spending money to end an illegal war -- controversial. Buying gym shoes made by slave laborers in Asia -- not controversial). But assuming you could do paid media, I have no clue what that would cost, but . . . well, it ain't me, babe (although if you know George Soros, you might send him this link).
But if you could get even half of war opponents to participate -- participate in non-participation -- or even 30%, that would translate into a 20% drop in consumer activity at the low end, and that's enough to be noticed. These are people to whom a few percentage points of market share -- even tenths of a percentage point -- mean millions of dollars. "Pennies per pound," Kris Kristofferson says in the movie, Fast Food Nation. "Pennies per pound." Comfortable lives for heirs yet unborn are at stake. They care.
To some extent, this action would be symbolic. Most economic activity would simply be transferred to the day before or the day after the event, but not all. You're not going to eat at McDonalds today just because you didn't yesterday, and the retailers don't want to pay their "associates" to stand around all day, even if they might be a little busier tomorrow. And symbolic actions can matter. Gandhi's Salt March was largely symbolic, and the British Empire began to crack.
The beauty of the idea is that, unlike a march, it requires so little effort to participate, and also so little risk. You can't get arrested for it. You can't get fired for it. Indeed, it requires more effort to not participate. At most, you have to break a few habits like the ritual morning Starbucks stop, and think ahead if you're going to need gas or groceries. But you still have the heightened awareness of taking action. (The biggest problem would be getting people to not go out for lunch. I know people who would consider that an almost inconceivable sacrifice, the obesity epidemic and the example of Ramadan notwithstanding.) And the kinds of locally-initiated protests that are already occurring could and should continue -- friendly reminder pickets at shopping centers would be helpful -- but tying them into a boycott would provide them with a common focus nationwide, rather than the disparate, isolated events they now are.
And heck, with Nobel economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz now putting the long-term cost of the war at $3 trillion -- and every last penny of it on your credit card -- setting aside one day a month to not spend money strikes me as just a minimally prudent savings plan. You can hardly afford not to do it.